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News Analysis: Barak Keeps Coalition Intact, but Crisis Leaves Israelis Angry

Prime Minister Ehud Barak managed to save his government, but he has been left bruised by his worst domestic crisis since taking office a year ago.

Though the fervently Orthodox Shas Party decided to remain in the government – – which observers had predicted would happen — many Israelis were left angry at the political spectacle.

“With all the problems on the agenda, from water to peace agreements, the political establishment is acting as if it is entirely isolated from the feelings of the voters,” according to a commentary in Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Yediot Achronot.

Barak could face more problems from Shas as he tries to move ahead with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

While the party agreed to remain in the government less than an hour before the resignation was to take effect Thursday, Shas officials made it clear that they would not automatically back Barak in the peace process.

The prime minister had been intent on keeping Shas, which holds 17 Knesset seats, in the coalition in order to ensure broad-based support for his peace policies.

Shas agreed to remain in the government after three ministers from the secular Meretz Party resigned a day earlier. Though the party will no longer be part of the Cabinet, Meretz plans to continue to support Barak in Knesset votes.

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

Before Meretz announced Wednesday that it would resign, voices from within Barak’s party admitted that if Shas resigned, the premier’s prospects for maintaining power would be bleak.

On Thursday, Barak issued an appeal for unity to meet the challenges facing the country.

“Friends, we cannot make peace with our neighbors without making peace first among ourselves,” Barak told members of his Labor Party. “We cannot move forward when every group is looking for ways to humiliate the other. We were elected by the people to lead, to give direction.”

In a speech strongly reminiscent of his election platform a year ago, the prime minister promised economic growth, lower tuition for college students and strong leadership.

“Israel wants change. It does not want to go back — and we will take her forward.”

What remains to be seen is whether the governing coalition will be able to implement that change.

Since the government’s establishment, Shas and Meretz have been at odds, especially over Education Minister Yossi Sarid’s insistence that Shas’ religious school system accept government scrutiny as a condition for much- needed state funding.

Shas said it was not interested in kicking Meretz out of the government — and would not even oppose Sarid’s return to the ministry on the condition that responsibility for the Shas schools remains out of his hands.

Shas said it is prepared to be a full partner in the coalition if they agree on government funding of its school system.

And if Shas agrees to back the premier on the peace process — and, based on comments from Shas officials, this now appears to be a big “if” — Barak will be able to pursue peace with broad legislative backing.

But the effort came at a cost: the loss of Meretz, which Barak has called “our natural partner”; the estimated $7 million he promised Shas for its school system; and a fair amount of criticism from the Israeli public over his handling of the crisis.

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