News Analysis: Sabbath Transport Crisis Highlights a Fragile Religious-secular Marriage

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has emerged unscathed from a potential crisis with the Orthodox partners in his government.

But no sooner had that crisis — prompted by plans for transporting parts of an electric power plant on the Sabbath — reached its end over the weekend, than Barak plunged into a new round of Cabinet quarrels over the more than $1 billion in cuts he is proposing for the nation’s budget.

Barak’s success in navigating the crisis over the power plant has given him some breathing space, say sources close to him — as well as a strong injection of self-confidence for waging the budget battle.

If he also succeeds on this front, he will immediately face further political challenges as he seeks to shepherd through the Knesset new peace moves with the Palestinians, and perhaps also with Syria.

Indeed, the still new but brash prime minister has a tight schedule of fights ahead. And as he faces these challenges, Barak is anxious to keep all of the seven parties represented in his leftist-Orthodox government together for as long as he possibly can.

The power plant affair was the first full-fledged crisis that the fledgling Barak government has faced.

It involved the transportation of a series of components for a power plant from the factory where they are made, in the center of the country, to a power station in Ashkelon.

In the past, the parts were transported on weekends, when the roads are less crowded and can be closed by police with the least danger and inconvenience to the general public.

This arrangement had never before prompted strains in the always delicate balance between Orthodox and secular interests.

But this time, Eli Suissa, National Infrastructure Minister and a member of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, demanded that the transportation of the components take place during the week to avoid any violation of the Sabbath by the workers and police escort involved in the operation.

Political insiders say Suissa knew as well as anyone that Orthodox officials have turned a blind eye to such operations for decades.

But, as a close ally of fallen Shas political leader Aryeh Deri — who was sentenced in April to four years in jail on charges of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of the public trust — and as a longtime hardliner on the land-for-peace issue, Suissa was said to be eager to undermine Shas’ alliance with Barak.

Whatever the true origins of the affair, it quickly mushroomed into a threat to Barak’s government.

The fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, which holds five of the 120 Knesset seats, said it would quit the coalition if the transportation went ahead last Friday night. Had Shas, which has 17 seats, and the National Religious Party, which has five, followed UTJ’s lead, Barak could have found himself without a governing majority.

Granted, Barak could have remedied the situation by bringing the secularist Shinui Party into his government. The Orthodox parties know this — and are especially anxious to prevent if from happening, given Shinui’s radically anti- Orthodox policies.

Barak could also have resumed his suspended coalition negotiations with the Likud Party — as Orthodox political officials also know.

Ultimately, UTJ officials backed off their threatened defection, accepting a purported “effort to mitigate Sabbath desecration” by using non-Jews in the transportation of the power plant components — even though the media quickly disclosed that many Jewish workers and policemen were in fact still involved in the operation.

But Barak also backed down, appointing a panel of top officials under Cabinet Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior to consider ways to transport subsequent sections of the turbine on weekday nights.

Plainly, Barak is not anxious to lose the Orthodox wing of his Cabinet and to have to start coalition bargaining anew.

But there is more than just convenience at stake.

Barak wants the popular Shas Party inside his coalition during the bruising budget battles that lie ahead.

Even if the Shas ministers vote against the proposed cuts — they will share responsibility for them, assuming the cuts are ultimately approved. This will prove a valuable asset for Barak, since the Shas officials represent a largely blue-collar constituency, who will be among those hit by the budgets cuts.

Even more, Barak wants the Orthodox parties to stay in the government during the crucial months ahead, when he plans to negotiate a final-status agreement with the Palestinians — and perhaps, too, a wholesale withdrawal from the Golan Heights in the context of peace with Syria.

The rabbinical leaders of UTJ, Shas and the NRP are politically valuable allies when swathes of biblical land are to be traded for peace.

To have the nation’s Orthodox rabbis all lined up against his peace policy would make the going tough indeed for the premier, even if he could retain a workable Knesset majority.

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