Barak’s government on brink of collapse

JERUSALEM, June 20 (JTA) — Prime Minister Ehud Barak was knee-deep in a domestic political crisis this week that threatened his government.

Following through on a threat made last week, four ministers from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party submitted their resignations from Barak’s government Tuesday.

The resignations would not take effect for 48 hours, giving Shas more time to try to press its demands that Barak release more state funds for the party’s financially troubled school system and legalize its pirate radio stations.

While some reports as of Tuesday afternoon indicated that Barak and Shas were close to agreement on some of the party’s demands, others suggested that the coalition crisis had spun completely out of control.

They pointed to power struggles within Shas and the hurt feelings of the party’s mostly Sephardi supporters, who resent what they feel is Barak’s condescending attitude toward them.

Some reports also say that right-wing factions within Shas, opposed to Barak’s peace initiatives, were factors in the pressures to leave the government.

Raphael Pinhasi, the Shas official who submitted the letters of resignation to the Prime Minister’s Office, said Tuesday that until the letters take effect, Shas is open to dialogue.

“It’s up to the prime minister to decide” whether “he wants to give us what we deserve,” Pinhasi said.

In one indication Tuesday that Shas hoped the crisis may yet be resolved, the Shas deputy ministers did not submit their letters of resignation, which would have taken effect immediately.

If Shas, which holds 17 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, followed through on the resignations, it would undo Barak’s 68-52 majority in Parliament.

Israel Radio quoted officials close to Barak as saying he would soon try to assemble a new coalition.

Shas has long been locked in a dispute with another coalition partner, the secular Meretz Party — which controls the Education Ministry — over the funding of Shas’ school network.

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.

The two parties have repeatedly blamed each other for creating the coalition crisis.

On Monday, Meretz ministers offered to give up their Cabinet seats but continue to support Barak in Parliament if that would help resolve the dispute.

The long-simmering crisis exploded earlier this month, when Shas sided with the opposition in a preliminary Knesset vote calling for early elections.

The bill must still face further votes, and Barak has demanded that Shas withdraw its support for the initiative as one of the conditions for resolving the school-funding crisis.

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