Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak’s efforts to assemble his “dream team” — a broad-based, unprecedented 96-member coalition government — got off to a rocky start this week when the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party rejected his demand for the resignation of its leader, Aryeh Deri.
“We won’t go crawling to any government,” said outgoing Interior Minister and Shas negotiator Eli Suissa. “Whoever wants us will get us as we are. We won’t be performing any cosmetic surgery in order to get into a coalition.”
He and other Shas members had entered the talks with a position paper that included their “categorical” refusal to oust Deri, who was convicted last month of corruption charges and faces four years in prison.
Although he resigned his Knesset seat last week, Deri vowed to continue to lead the party’s social and religious activities. He is free pending an appeal to the High Court of Justice, which begins hearing the case Sunday; that could take one year.
Barak, the Labor Party leader who heads the new One Israel alliance, received a better reception when he asked the opposition party, Likud, to join his coalition as a partner. Likud representatives, still reeling from Barak’s stunning landslide ouster last week of their party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were split on whether to join. But those at Tuesday’s talks clearly welcomed Barak’s offer of a partnership government.
“They want us very much; they said so loud and clear,” said Limor Livnat, who served as media director of the Netanyahu re-election campaign.
Netanyahu himself has maintained a low profile this week and was expected to resign his seat in the Knesset and from all party activities. The deposed prime minister was spotted house-hunting in Israel by a photographer this week, and he is said to have a book deal in the works. He also has several offers for speaking engagements in the United States.
David Libai, who heads the Barak negotiating team, said the offer to Likud was made “in the hope of finding national consensus in a period where important decisions will be made, both domestically and abroad.”
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a Knesset candidate on the One Israel ticket, said Barak was determined to “build a very, very wide coalition because he understands that if he is going on with the peace process, he has to gather as many parties and people as he can.”
That coalition, according to one observer, would be comprised of all but the Arab and extreme right parties.
Livnat stressed that although Likud also wanted unity, she said it must not be “at any price. The gaps [between the two parties] are wide. We want details on their policies.”
Labor Party sources said the guidelines were to be drawn up jointly with the coalition partners in the next few days. Once in hand, they would be used as the framework in assembling a coalition government beginning Sunday.
Barak himself penned his own set of guidelines that presumably would be used in crafting the joint set of principles. They call for:
n The withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within one year as part of a peace arrangement with Syria (although possibly before a Syrian peace treaty is finalized).
n Keeping Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel.
n Resuming peace talks with the Palestinians in compliance with the Oslo Accords.
n Drafting Orthodox yeshiva students into the army, who until now had been granted exemptions.
n Fostering investment in the infrastructure to promote growth.
n Integrating new immigrants and women into key positions in political, economic and social positions.
n Working to implement equality for all and narrow existing gaps.
Among the differences to be ironed out between Barak and Likud:
n Barak is willing to cede to Syria some of the territory on the Golan Heights Israel seized during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Likud would give back none of it.
n Barak has called the expansion of existing Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem “unwise.” Likud is committed to enlarging them.
The thought of Likud in the government chilled Arab leaders, who had welcomed Barak’s victory as a sign that the long-stalled peace process could resume. Having Likud in the coalition could thwart those efforts, they feared.
“Arab leaders did not choose Barak, so he would continue the same policies as Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Taleb Sanaa, a deputy with the United Arab List party.
Two major Israeli Arab parties formally endorsed Barak’s election. The leader of a third had withdrawn from the prime minister’s race two days before the election to increase Barak’s chances of winning. Despite their support, observers said it was unlikely Barak would bring any of the three Arab parties into his coalition. They represent 18 percent of the electorate.
A senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, said final-status talks would not resume until Barak resumed implementation of the Wye agreement hammered out last October and halted new settlement activities. Under the Wye accords, Israel must withdraw troops from another 11 percent of the West Bank and release an additional 500 Palestinian prisoners.
King Abdullah of Jordan met Wednesday with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to discuss convening an Arab summit meeting to coordinate an Arab position on upcoming peace talks.
Meanwhile, the first round of talks with the 14 other parties that will make up the 15th Knesset have been handled by a negotiating team and not by Barak himself. Observers say Barak likely will take at least a month to put together his coalition, and might even take the full 45 days permitted by law, which ends July 8.
But Barak did meet with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau and his Sephardi counterpart, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who told him that they welcomed his call for unity. He told them that he hoped to implement the drafting of yeshiva students by agreement rather than legislation.
The rabbis asked that Barak defer for one year any initiatives on the divisive synagogue-state issue and that he create a public council of religious and secular scholars to explore the issues in the meantime.
Before meeting with Likud and Shas representatives, Barak’s negotiators met with parties that supported him in his election. Among them were representatives of Meretz, a liberal alliance. They gave Barak’s negotiators a list of demands they wanted met in order for them to join the coalition. It included a freeze on all new settlement construction and the introduction of a law allowing freedom of religion. They also want the development of a state constitution, something Shas supporters oppose in the belief the state should be governed according to Jewish law.
Although Barak has said he would like Shas to enter the coalition — and another Shas member, Eli Yishai, said the door was still open to Shas entering — demonstrators greeted Shas representatives when they arrived for talks Tuesday at a luxury hotel in the northern Tel Aviv surburb of Herzliya. One carried a sign in English that read “Democracy yes, Shas no.” And a hang glider flew overhead with a sign reading “Just not Shas.”
Barak has encountered anti-Shas protesters since his wild victory party in Rabin Square on Election Night, when a chant went up in the crowd: “Just not Shas!”
This week, while speaking at another victory party, the chant broke out again just as Barak was spelling out his goals.
“I am aware of the desire to rise above all the arguments, to put an end to division, hate and acrimony among us, and to stride together toward a better future for Israel,” he said. “We will propose to anyone who wants to follow our path to join a broad coalition.”
At that point, the chant erupted and signs were hoisted reading “Barak, you promised a change without Shas.”
The Shas deputy health minister of the current government, Shlomo Benizri, threatened this week that the anti-Shas campaign could erupt in violence.
“There is no doubt that this is infuriating and it could lead to an outburst on the part of our community,” he told the Jerusalem Post, later adding “ I can’t stop them.”
One Israel Knesset member Avi Yehezkel urged Barak to include Shas for fear its exclusion “could rally lead to a civilian intifada.” But a source close to the prime minister-elect reportedly dismissed the talk as “just the latest Deri tactic.”
Israel correspondent Larry Derfner contributed to this report.