With Secretary of State Madeleine Albright slated to arrive next week in a bid to arrange a crucial retreat-style summit meeting involving Israel and the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s attention was focused instead on the Shas party and its threat to bring down his broad-based coalition government.
Although Shas’ four cabinet ministers resigned effective Thursday afternoon, Barak said it was premature to discuss forming an alternative government, but he added: “There will be a government in any eventuality. My opinion is that elections are far away.”
Barak said both he and Shas leader Eli Yishai want to keep Shas in the coalition, something Barak believes is critical at a time when peace talks with the Palestinians appear to be coming to a head.
Without Shas’ 17 Knesset seats in the government, the prime minister’s 68-member coalition would dwindle to just 51. That would mean that to pass legislation in the 120-member legislature, Barak would have to rely on 10 Arab lawmakers — something he is loath to do on anything regarding the peace process.
He also needs the support of Shas voters to approve a referendum on any peace deal worked out with the Palestinians.
At issue are Shas’ demands for money to maintain its bankrupt school system, for the school system to be free from the control of Education Minister Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz party, and for the legalization of Shas’ pirate radio stations.
Late Tuesday, the money issue appeared to be resolved and Barak offered to chair a new committee of ministers to oversee Shas schools, taking the responsibility from Sarid.
“It had become a personal issue of Yishai against Sarid,” said Kenneth Stein, professor of Middle East history and political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “It was not just a question of money. There were differences between the two men that appeared to be unbridgeable, and that is why Barak stepped in.”
Yishai has complained of months of insults and discrimination from Sarid.
Stein said compromise was in Shas’ interest.
“Shas knows that if it leaves the government, it will lose monthly support for its schools,” he said. “It needs that revenue because it has a highly sophisticated education system with a lot of people on the payroll. If they don’t get paid, the patron-client system Shas [maintains] to stay influential over its community would begin to be lost.
“Its success derives [also] from the fact that it provides social services to its population that the Israeli government did not or could not provide. If the government finds a way to provide them and to bypass the Shas coffers, Shas would lose [more] of its crucial patronage. So for Shas, the bottom line is money.”
This was not the first time Shas brought the 11-month-old Barak government to the brink of collapse, having done so in December and then pulling back at the 11th hour, Stein noted.
Despite the political wrangling, Stein said he was certain that Barak would not allow party politics to deter him from moving forward on the peace process.
“The man has tunnel vision and he is not going to abrogate his responsibilities [in the peace process],” he said. “Turmoil in domestic politics does not mean that foreign policy stops.”
In fact, while domestic politics had Barak’s attention, others in the government were talking about the upcoming Albright visit. One Israeli newspaper even reported that agreement had been reached for a July 6 summit meeting at Camp David involving Barak, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and President Bill Clinton. But the director general of the Israeli government press office, Moshe Fogel, insisted Tuesday that as much as Israel would like such a meeting, the Palestinians had not yet signed on — although “we are close to an agreement.”
“Israel believes it would be useful to have a summit,” Fogel explained. “There are many people in the government who believe that a framework agreement would come out of such a summit. … One thing is sure — the coming weeks are decision points and if they go by without some type of framework agreement, the chances of getting one later go down.”
After a meeting last week with Arafat in Washington, Clinton said he believed that more spade work was needed before both sides would be ripe for a summit meeting. Albright said later that Clinton is “someone who among American presidents is trusted not only by the Israelis but by the Arabs.”
“I think there is an opportunity now to do something,” she said.
All sides are aware of the American political calendar and of the belief that Clinton’s attention will be diverted from the Middle East as the November presidential election approaches.
Fogel said he believed that the Palestinian decision to delay by two weeks a third Israeli troop redeployment in the West Bank “indicates there is a readiness on their part to consider coming to the summit.”
Nevertheless, he said, until now the Palestinians “haven’t indicated any readiness whatsoever to show flexibility on any of their positions. There is nothing that prevents them from showing some kind of flexibility at the negotiating table. If they are prepared to adjust some of their hard-line positions, there can be a push to wrap up the agreement.”
At issue are the future of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel, Israeli settlements in the territories, and the borders of a Palestinian state Arafat has vowed to declare Sept. 13 with or without a final status peace treaty.
The European Union announced this week that it was ready to recognize a Palestinian state, even if it is proclaimed unilaterally.