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News Analysis: Barak’s Money-for-Peace Scheme with Shas Subjects Him to Ridicule

Two "down payments" that Ehud Barak offered to make this week have provided political pundits with the raw material for a series of jokes at the expense of the increasingly beleaguered prime minister.

Barak has promised his largest coalition partner, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, a multimillion-dollar payment in the form of additional state financing for the party’s financially troubled education network.

And to the Palestinians, Barak has promised to turn over three villages just outside the Jerusalem city limits as an advance on a West Bank withdrawal that Israel is required to make under previously signed agreements.

In both cases, the premier hopes the down payments will keep the recipient content, at least in the medium term, and thereby keep his government and his peace policy intact.

The two moves, which are intricately linked, exemplify former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s purported observation that "Israel has no foreign policy — only domestic politics."

In return for the funding, Shas is expected to throw its support behind Barak in upcoming Knesset votes on the peace process, particularly when it comes to handing over control of Abu Dis, Al-Azariya and Sawahara — the villages that comprise Barak’s down payments to the Palestinians.

Barak’s offers, however, may look better on paper than when put into practice.

Shas, which holds 17 pivotal Knesset seats, has so far given no guarantee that it will indeed support the prime minister’s peace moves if it gets the money it is demanding.

Moreover, Shas’s rival in the coalition, the secular Meretz Party, gave notice that it will secede from the government — though not yet from the coalition – – if the Shas schools receive more money.

Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who heads the Education Ministry, insists that the proposed payment would betray all the government’s previous efforts at getting the Shas school system to operate efficiently and with financial transparency.

For their part, the Palestinians are making it clear that the three villages will by no means mitigate their demand that Israel hand over, in the next troop withdrawal, all of the West Bank aside from settlements, eastern Jerusalem and Israeli-specified security locations.

The Palestinians maintain that their demand conforms to the letter with the original Oslo accords. These agreements, they say, call for Israel to hand over some 90 percent of the territory in advance of a final peace agreement, which the two sides hope to conclude by September.

Negotiations, both on the West Bank withdrawal and on an outline of a final peace accord, reopened Sunday in Eilat and were due to stretch into next week with the active participation of U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.

But there was little optimism on either side that these talks could bridge the remaining gaps.

To make Barak’s situation even more miserable, the National Religious Party announced that it would quit the government — and the coalition — the moment full control of Abu Dis is transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

To give the villages to the Palestinians now, says the NRP, would be to signal that parts of Jerusalem itself are up for negotiation.

Barak’s increasingly precarious condition was well illustrated when he met Monday with the right-wing Likud Party leader, Ariel Sharon.

The two men, old friends and mutual admirers, emerged from their two-hour meeting sour-faced. Sharon later demanded immediate elections. Barak, his perpetual smile looking thin, tried to shrug this off.

That same morning, pundits were vying with each other in speculating what the rare private meeting might portend.

They were convinced that Sharon wanted a place at the Cabinet table, and they wondered if Barak was seriously weighing the idea. Or perhaps, they speculated, Barak was merely using his relationship with Sharon to strengthen his position with Shas and Meretz, as if to signal to his unruly coalition allies that he has another available option — a coalition with Likud.

But given the public exchange of barbs that followed the two leaders’ meeting, those same pundits were soon wondering aloud whether Barak does indeed have the option of bringing Likud into his government.

Failing that, his government may be headed toward early collapse.

This may happen because Barak, though having decided to side with Shas in its ongoing battle with Meretz, may nonetheless find himself in the embarrassing position of being unable to count on Shas’ support during the stormy confrontations that inevitably lie ahead.

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