News Analysis: As the Sun Sets on Assad, is Barak’s Government Next?

The coincidence could hardly have been lost on Ehud Barak: As President Hafez Assad was laid to rest in Syria, Israel’s Shas Party appeared to lay the premier’s “peace coalition” to rest.

The fervently Orthodox party’s Council of Sages, headed by spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, sounded what could be the first notes of the prime minister’s coalition’s death knell Tuesday. The council ordered Shas ministers to hand in their resignations at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

If Shas, which holds 17 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, keeps to its decision, it would undo Barak’s 68-52 majority in Parliament.

At midweek, it appeared that the shaky political partnership between Shas and the secular Meretz Party, Barak’s other major coalition partner, was going to collapse.

The prime minister never concealed his desire to keep Shas inside his peace camp and somehow iron out its differences with Meretz’s leader, Education Minister Yossi Sarid, over the funding of Shas’ financially troubled school network.

With Shas as his largest coalition partner, Barak had come close to peace with Assad’s Syria earlier this year.

A sliver of land alongside the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee was all that separated the two sides in January, when talks between the two countries ran aground.

Shas, despite murmurings among its rank-and-file members, stood firmly beside Barak during that period, as did Meretz.

Another Orthodox coalition partner, the National Religious Party, threatened to quit if a deal was signed with Syria for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Russian immigrant party Yisrael Ba’Aliyah also showed signs of strain as Barak moved toward sweeping land concessions to Syria.

Together with his own One Israel bloc, and with the Israeli Arab parties’ support from outside the coalition, Barak was confident that he would win majorities in the Cabinet and in the Knesset for the evolving land-for-peace deal with Syria, and then successfully present it to the Israeli people in a referendum.

But with Assad’s death, the conventional wisdom is that any prospects of reviving peace talks with Syria have been dealt a severe blow. Assad’s son and heir apparent, Bashar, will need time to stabilize his government.

But the secession of Shas would be a blow of equally heavy, if not heavier, weight to the peace process — both with Syria and the Palestinians.

Granted, Barak may possibly cobble together an alternative government and scrape by in Knesset votes, at least for the immediate future, with the help of the 10 Israeli Arab legislators.

But if all the Orthodox parties and their supporters line up against him – - reconstituting, in effect, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist-religious coalition — Barak’s prospects of negotiating a peace accord with either Syria or the Palestinians, and making it stick, will be enormously diminished.

For one thing, many Israeli settlers on the West Bank and the Golan are Orthodox. Their homes and futures are on the line. They will be much more resistant to peace if they know that the entire Orthodox camp is united in opposition to Barak.

A government without Shas would have difficulty winning a convincing majority in the referendum Barak has pledged to hold before finalizing any land-for- peace deal.

Knowing this, Israel’s partners in peace talks will be all the more cautious about “wasting” their core concessions to a government that does not have the internal strength to capitalize on them.

This may be especially true for the Palestinians, who resumed talks with Israel this week near Washington. Shas’ announcement that it is resigning from the coalition came three months before the two sides are scheduled to reach a final peace treaty.

Israeli-Palestinian talks have not been going smoothly, and Shas’ announcement that it is jumping ship is not likely to help.

But as of this week, Shas had not yet done the deed. Before Sunday’s Cabinet session, a compromise still could be worked out.

“The Sages’ decision does not preclude continued negotiations,” said Rafael Pinhasi, secretary of the Shas Council of Sages.

Indeed, even if the ministers submit their letters of resignation, the law provides for a further 48 hours before they take effect. That period, too, could be filled with last-minute haggling designed to draw back from the brink.

“It’s not over till it’s over,” a seasoned political pundit warned.

No one in politics, he reasoned — not even the Likud opposition, with its leadership rivalries still unresolved — seems to want elections this early in the Barak government’s term.

Likud leader Ariel Sharon, however, said he hopes the Shas announcement would lead to early elections and the establishment of a nationalist government.

“I see no other option except to change this failing government,” Sharon said.

But One Israel minister Yossi Beilin told Israel Television’s Channel One that new elections were not an option now.

“There will not be any early elections,” he said. “We have no time to waste, we have a political process to see to.”

Political crises, however, have a way of rolling forward on their own momentum to places that politicians never really intended to reach.

The Shas rabbis’ decision Tuesday, like Assad’s demise on Saturday, could have long-term and far-reaching consequences for Israel and the region.

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