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News Analysis: Barak Making Last-ditch Effort to Save His Governing Coalition

June 21, 2000
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Prime Minister Ehud Barak was fighting for his political life this week.

His largest coalition partner, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, resigned from the government Tuesday, a move that could force new elections.

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

At the same time, Barak and the ministers from his One Israel bloc was pressuring their other major partner, the secular Meretz Party, to give ground in its ongoing battle with Shas and thereby pull the government back from the abyss.

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

“Whatever happens, there will be a government committed to our policies of peace, security and closing the economic gaps,” Barak said at a news conference Tuesday.

But other voices from within his party admitted that if Shas goes, Barak’s prospects for holding onto power would be bleak.

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

While on paper he could perhaps cobble together a narrow-based government – – without any Orthodox component and relying on the votes of the 10 legislators from Israeli Arab parties — this would render 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, is early elections.

If elections are 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 is 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 — and this is seen within One Israel as Barak’s strongest remaining card.

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 another Shas demand — the creation of a separate broadcast authority for Orthodox television and radio stations had also been resolved. 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 wields 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 adamantly opposes either of these options.

The Meretz leader offered to withdraw his party from the government, remaining in the coalition without controlling any ministries. But Barak was 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: He himself will head a special ministerial committee that will oversee the Shas school system during the coming three months.

Anything smacking of discrimination against the Shas schools would immediately be taken up by this committee.

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.

Several One Israel ministers were said to be urging behind the scenes that Barak finally — belatedly in their view – exercise his authority over Sarid and force the issue with the Meretz chairman, ordering him to confer powers on Deputy Minister Nahari and accepting Sarid’s resignation if he refuses to do so.

These ministers believe there is some body of opinion inside Meretz itself that feels increasingly uncomfortable with the equanimity with which they believe Sarid is engineering the collapse of Barak’s peace coalition.

Political observers, watching the premier’s unscripted television appearance, said Barak was not trying to conceal his hope that Shas step back from the brink.

Barak still believes that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual leader, backs him on the peace process and is willing to instruct the party’s 17 legislators to support his peace moves — if the Shas schools are finally wrested from Sarid’s control.

On the other hand, the pundits note, Barak cannot simply give Shas whatever it wants, for fear of running afoul of the High Court of Justice, where any irregular arrangement with Shas would inevitably be questioned.

With this very much in mind, Barak said Tuesday that all his proposals to Shas were firmly within the parameters of the law.

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