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Barak appears to save his government

JERUSALEM, June 21 (JTA) — Israel came close to witnessing the collapse of a government this week.

The crisis came after months of fighting between two of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s coalition partners, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the secular Meretz Party.

The government had long seemed an odd mixture of competing interests, and the Shas-Meretz infighting left Barak fighting for his political life this week.

His largest coalition partner, Shas, resigned from the government Tuesday, a move that could have forced new elections.

But Barak, using a two-day cooling-off period prescribed by law before the resignations take effect, urged Shas to return.

On Wednesday, Barak’s chances of saving his government improved after three Meretz ministers decided to resign. Shas officials said they would remain in Barak’s coalition after the Meretz resignations become official.

Though the party will no longer be part of the Cabinet, Meretz said it would still support Barak in Knesset votes.

As a result, it appears that Barak will maintain his 68-vote majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Meretz, which controls the Education Ministry, has for months locked horns with Shas over funding for Shas’ financially troubled school network.

Before Wednesday’s announcement from Meretz, voices from within Barak’s party admitted that if Shas resigned, the premier’s prospects for holding onto power would be bleak.

“We have no other real option if Shas leaves,” Environment Minister Dalia Itzik of Barak’s One Israel bloc said Tuesday night.

While on paper Barak could perhaps have cobbled together a narrow-based government — without any Orthodox component and relying on the votes of the 10 legislators from Israeli Arab parties — this would have rendered him permanently at the mercy of numerous small partners and ultimately doomed to fall prey to their contrary pressures and demands.

Another alternative, of course, would have been early elections.

If for some reason the coalition does not survive and new elections are indeed held, One Israel hopes the recent withdrawal of troops from southern Lebanon and the beginnings of an upturn in the economy will buoy Barak’s political fortunes.

But predicting the outcome of elections is dangerous. And, barely a year after Barak took office, few if any politicians are eager to risk their future at the ballot box again.

Indeed, Shas was likewise reluctant to go to elections now — the party is suffering from internal rifts and former leader Aryeh Deri still awaits a verdict in his appeal on a conviction for taking bribes.

Before Wednesday’s announcement from Meretz, Barak told reporters this week that “90 percent” of the disputed issues surrounding Shas’ educational network had been resolved in “long days and nights of negotiation.”

He said he had resolved another Shas demand — the creation of a separate broadcast authority for Orthodox television and radio stations. Shas was being offered effective autonomy for its stations, now broadcasting illegally, within the existing second broadcast authority.

But for Shas, this was not enough as long as Meretz’s leader, Education Minister Yossi Sarid, still wielded direct control over Shas’ education system.

Shas ministers demanded that their school network be removed from the Education Ministry entirely, or, failing that, be put under the direct aegis of the deputy minister of education, Shas’s own Meshulam Nahari.

Sarid had adamantly opposed either of these options.

But the Meretz leader ultimately gave Shas what it wanted when he decided to withdraw his party from the government, remaining in the coalition without controlling any ministries.

Barak was initially reluctant to take up this offer, fearing it would be seen as a surrender to Shas pressure.

Instead, as the 48 hours relentlessly ticked away, Barak summoned his party ministers Tuesday night to present yet another possible compromise — that he himself head a special ministerial committee to oversee the Shas school system during the coming three months.

In this way, Barak suggested, Sarid would not be stripped of the formal power over the Shas schools, but in practice the prime minister would hold the last word.

In his live televised news conference on Tuesday, Barak voiced thinly veiled criticism of the Meretz leader.

Barak said some 99 percent of Meretz voters had voted for him as premier because they wanted to entrust him with the important task of peacemaking with the Palestinians and Israel’s other neighbors.

Surely, Barak added, the present dispute over Shas’ school funding and its broadcasting stations should take a back seat while the government enters a critically important period in the peace process.

“A time will come when all involved will have to take stock and search their hearts,” Barak said somberly.

It was clear he was referring to Sarid and to what Barak sees as Sarid’s personal responsibility for the crisis.

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