JERUSALEM, March 21 (JTA) With Pope John Paul’s arrival in Israel coinciding with Purim, some Israelis feared that fervently Orthodox children would dress up like the pope and mock him, or, worse still, hang him in effigy like the villain Haman in the Book of Esther.
But by the time he arrived here on Tuesday, the pope had been shunted off center stage in the haredi purimspiels that accompany the festive holiday.
Instead, the role of the contemporary Haman, the man who threatened the Jews, went to a homegrown figure: Education Minister Yossi Sarid.
In Sephardi and haredi synagogues throughout Israel, “Cursed be Yossi Sarid” was added to the traditional Purim prayer “Cursed be Haman.”
Potential Jewish anger toward Christians became actual Jewish anger against Jews and more than that, it reflected a deep divide in the country’s governing coalition just as Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks were again showing signs of life.
President Clinton’s announcement that he would meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad on Sunday in Geneva spelled the possibility that Israeli- Syrian talks, suspended since January, may soon resume.
And on Tuesday, Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed in Washington after more than a month of deadlock.
Hours before those talks resumed on Tuesday, Israel withdrew from an additional 6.1 percent of the West Bank, giving the Palestinian Authority control of about 40 percent of the West Bank.
It is against this backdrop that Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while welcoming the pope, also found himself frantically shuttling between his warring coalition partners, trying to keep his peace coalition afloat as a defining moment in the peace process suddenly loomed.
Most observers believe that once the summer sets in, U.S. officials will be preoccupied with the upcoming elections and be unable to engage in sustained diplomatic efforts.
Israeli newspapers reported Tuesday that a deal with Syria has been negotiated down to the finest details in behind-the-scenes contacts that have proceeded continuously since formal Israeli-Syrian negotiations were suspended in January.
They say Clinton’s personal intervention could lead to a quick clinching of the accord.
The alteration to the Purim synagogue liturgy, with its curses heaped on Sarid, reflected an ongoing battle between Barak’s major coalition partners, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the secular Meretz Party, headed by Sarid.
Just days before Purim, in his weekly Torah lesson, the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, called on his followers to lay a curse on the Cabinet minister.
“I can’t restrain myself any more,” Yosef said, as his comments were relayed by satellite to tens of thousands of followers around the country and around the world. “This evil man Sarid is like Haman of old.”
“May his name be blotted out,” he said, lashing out at what his party believes is Sarid’s deliberate efforts to stymie the growth of Shas’ education network. “Curse Haman and Curse Yossi Sarid.”
Shas accuses Sarid of undermining its financially troubled religious school system, which is daily winning new adherents to its schools and to Orthodoxy and in turn providing the party with its main pillar of political support.
Under a deal recently worked out with the government, Sarid agreed to transfer funds to the debt-ridden school system on the condition Shas officials streamline its administration and meet certain educational criteria.
Countering the accusations that he is using his office to destroy Shas’ school network, Sarid maintains that he has provided the funds even though the network has not fully complied with the financial reforms and management program that it agreed to.
Relations between Shas and Meretz could hardly be close, given the great chasm between them on religious issues.
But Barak, like his mentor Yitzhak Rabin before him, believed the two parties’ support for the peace process and for the requisite territorial concessions to achieve peace would provide a sufficient basis for partnership in the coalition.
Yosef’s attack on Sarid may have delighted his Shas-affiliated audience, but they embarrassed many of his admirers who are not Shas adherents.
Among those admirers is Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who is now being pressured to order a criminal investigation of the elderly rabbi for possible incitement to murder.
Yosef’s speech reminded many Israelis of the atmosphere of incitement that prevailed before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Orthodox student.
But Shas ministers warned Barak that if their rabbi is questioned, their party will secede from the government.
This would leave Barak with barely a legislative majority, just as Clinton makes what could be his last bid to reach comprehensive Middle East peace accords.
Thus, Barak was caught between the seemingly unbridgeable positions of Shas and Meretz.
On the one hand, he does not want to be seen as sanctioning Yosef’s attack on Sarid. But he also does not want to take any action that would deprive him of the pivotal presence of Shas which has 17 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in his coalition.
Meretz, with 10 seats, is less powerful, but closer to Barak’s core constituency, many of whom are outraged at Yosef’s comments and are demanding that he face charges of incitement.
In the wake of his remarks, Yosef issued a “clarification,” saying he had not meant anyone to use, or even contemplate, the use of violence, which is strictly forbidden under religious law.
But he declined to apologize to Sarid.
In the Purim world of topsy-turvy, it was perhaps natural that some commentators pointed to the pope’s visit, and his efforts at Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, as an example of constructive leadership by a religious figure.
Jews and Catholics have 2000 years of blood-soaked history to overcome. Yet the visit seemed to show they are moving forward.
Will the same be true between Jews and Arabs? And, for that matter, between the Jews and Jews in Barak’s squabbling coalition?