Barak aims to please secular voters


JERUSALEM, Aug. 21 (JTA) —Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has announced a number of initiatives aimed at Israel’s secular voters.

The initiatives, which are being viewed as an indication that Barak is pessimistic about the possibility of bringing any religious parties back into his weakened governing coalition, include allowing for the drafting of a constitution, creating civil marriages and abolishing the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Barak announced the initiatives in a meeting with Labor Party ministers Saturday night.

“The national agenda has now changed: After the withdrawal from Lebanon and putting the economy on its feet, it is time to raise the flag of social issues,” Barak told Israel Radio.

Barak said he had delegated three Cabinet ministers — Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Rabbi Michael Melchior — to draw up a position paper on a constitution.

He said he would continue simultaneously with efforts to make peace with Israel’s neighbors.

Sources within Barak’s One Israel bloc said Barak’s move was tantamount to a “divorce” from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party — which vehemently opposes the steps.

Barak publicly prodded the Likud Party to support his measures.

But Ariel Sharon, the leader of the main opposition party, said Barak’s announcement reflected his government’s panic — and predicted the measures would not pass.

The announcement is the latest in a series that appears to be aimed at winning favor with the Israeli public.

Last week, Finance Minister Avraham Shochat announced a number of dramatic cuts in sales taxes on such items as household appliances and electronics.

Barak lost his parliamentary majority when three parties walked out of his governing coalition in protest against the Camp David summit, leaving his coalition with 42 members out of the 120-member Knesset.

The embattled prime minister has been trying to rebuild his coalition during the Knesset summer recess while simultaneously working to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians.

At the same time, however, speculation has intensified that Barak may have to face early elections if he is unable to cobble together a government or head off efforts to vote his coalition out of office.

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