JERUSALEM, Aug. 15 (JTA) — Israel’s religious-secular conflict has taken some odd twists and turns in the past, but nobody imagined that the first crisis of Israel’s new government would be over 250 tons of equipment for an electrical generator. For weeks, Israel Electric Corp., the state-owned power monopoly, has been waiting for five shipments of the equipment — called a reheater but popularly known as “the turbine” — from a factory in central Israel to a new power facility being built near Ashkelon on Israel’s southern coast. The problem is that the load is so big that the trucks hog three lanes as they crawl down the highway at less than five miles an hour through major intersections. So the plan was to ship them on Shabbat, when traffic is lighter and any problem during the 16-hour trip could be easily cleared up before the Sunday rush hour. Several months ago, the first such shipment went unnoticed on Shabbat. But that was before the Infrastructure Ministry, which oversees the energy sector, was run by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Enter Eli Suissa, the new Shas infrastructure minister, who said Thursday, “I do not think that if the government will decide to transport the equipment on Shabbat that anyone with a kipah on his head will continue to sit at the government table.” And with that, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak was plunged into a coalition crisis. It all seemed a bit absurd, even to veterans of the religious-secular battlefield. Yet for days before and after the Shas threat, the “turbine” topped the news. The Supreme Court ruled the police should decide, radio talk shows could not get enough and finally, Barak backed the Shabbat shipment. According to status quo agreements, he said, unusually big cargoes such as these have been moved on Shabbat for 50 years. A government crisis was averted on Sunday, though, because Barak agreed that a team would look into ways the other parts of the turbine could be moved on weekdays. However, Shas said that if the team decided future moves had to take place on Shabbat, the party would meet to consider its options. The crisis appeared to be flaring up again in the middle of this week, amid reports that police officials intended to reject a compromise proposal on the issue — and as the Knesset prepared to meet in a special meeting called by Shas. Despite all the talk, neither the secular nor religious general public appeared to be getting too emotionally involved in the fate of the large pile of metal. Perhaps, said Shlomo Benizri, the Shas health minister, the Israeli media was just latching onto the story for lack of other news during the quiet summer season. When the trucks set out last Friday night, some secular Israelis applauded while they were caught in the late-night weekend traffic as the enormous load inched past. A few fervently Orthodox residents of Bnei Brak protested. Yet by Sunday, Barak’s coalition was still intact. But secular lawmakers continued to warn that the affair showed how an overconfident Shas, with 17 Knesset members and four ministers, could flex its muscle in new ways. “This is a symptom of yet another attempt to impose religious coercion on the secular people,” said Joseph Paritzky, a Shinui Knesset member who submitted the Supreme Court petition. “Along comes Mr. Suissa, from an ultra-Orthodox party, who did not come to the government to serve the state of Israel — he came to serve the rabbi. Now there is a conflict between his belief and a real public need, and he prefers very bluntly and very openly the religious issue over the benefit of the public.” For Benizri of Shas, the issue was a sign of how intolerant secular Israeli society has become toward the Orthodox. “This has gotten out of control,” he told Israel Radio. “I am sure that if the Palestinian Authority or Christians asked not to move the equipment because of a holiday their request would have been respected. But today, because there is this terrible sensitivity in our society, everything the religious ask for is seen as religious coercion.” Naomi Chazan, a Knesset member from the liberal Meretz Party, said she hoped the affair would not become a precedent. Shinui has repeatedly accused Meretz of “selling out” on its ideals by joining a government with Shas. “It is not a question of selling out. If you think in those terms there will never be coexistence,” Chazan says. “If this situation is played correctly — and that requires a certain degree of goodwill on both sides — then maybe we will be able to find a real means of coexistence.” Meretz and Shas will have ample opportunities to find out. Israel Electric still has four more shipments to complete.
BEHIND THE HEADLINES Religious, secular turn ‘turbine’ into heavy-metal political batt