Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s hope of placating rebellious coalition partners who last week voted for early elections was dealt a blow Tuesday when the spiritual leaders of Shas ordered the party to leave the government.
Although Shas’ political leader, Eli Yishai, said the decision of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages was “unequivocal,” there was speculation that Shas might change its mind if Barak agreed to its demands. Shas is seeking government money to bail out its scandal-ridden, bankrupt school system, and it is seeking to legalize Shas-affiliated pirate radio stations.
Amid the uncertainty, Ariel Sharon, leader of the opposition Likud Party, met with Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and pledged to press the Knesset for the money needed for Shas’ school system if the government did not provide it.
Naomi Blumenthal, chair of the Likud World Movement, said Sharon is attempting to work with Shas to “build a coalition of all the parties opposed to Barak.”
She noted that Sharon has ruled out joining with Barak to form a unity government and that Barak and former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were tied in public opinion popularity polls.
But were there to be new elections, Blumenthal said, it is unclear who would be Likud’s candidate for prime minister. Sharon, Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert all want the job and would face each other in a primary unless they could decide among themselves who would be the stronger candidate.
Colette Avital, a member of the Knesset from Barak’s One Israel Party, pointed out however that Netanyahu is still under investigation for allegedly taking gifts that belonged to the state after he left office. And she said that because he gave up his seat in the Knesset, he is ineligible to be elected prime minister.
(There were reports this week that authorities were preparing to recommend against indicting Netanyahu because of insufficient evidence.)
These developments came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiations resumed this week outside of Washington, and the sudden death Saturday of Syrian President Hafez Assad cast a cloud over the prospects for a resumption of stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
One prominent member of Barak’s One Israel Party, Finance Minister Avraham Shohat, said that if Shas really wanted to bolt the government, it would have submitted its resignation immediately. Instead, he noted, Shas ministers said they were instructed to wait until Sunday’s cabinet meeting, giving both sides time to resolve the crisis.
Barak himself said he wanted to keep his broad-based coalition together after only 11 months in office and had decided to give himself another two weeks before deciding whether to fire the six ministers — including those of Shas — who voted for early elections, thereby causing a coalition crisis himself.
Justice Minister Yossi Beilin of the One Israel Party denied that “this is just a game of who can fire whom first,” but that is how it appeared by midweek.
In television interviews Tuesday night, Barak said he preferred “brotherly love over senseless hatred” and that the “door is still open” to resolving differences.
Avital conceded Wednesday that the government was “as close as we have ever been to collapse, but I think it won’t because at the last moment Shas will return to the fold.” She said she believed the Shas ministers would resign on Sunday but that a compromise would be reached in the 48 hours before they take effect Tuesday.
The issue, said Avital, is “not one of money but rather the principle of governance — can one rely on Shas after this crisis is over. Can we have a normal relationship that entails a certain kind of solidarity and collective responsibility?”
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Zalman Shoval of the opposition Likud Party, said Barak needs a broad-based coalition if he expects to conclude a peace treaty with the Palestinians that will win widespread public support.
“Mr. Barak, whatever he may say at the present time, understands that a narrow-based coalition basically dependent upon the Arab vote is not the form of government he will want to lead when he has to tackle issues in the peace process,” he said. “I know for a fact that Mr. Barak is making every effort not to put himself in the position of [former Labor Prime Minister Yitzchak] Rabin, who had a coalition of one after the Oslo accords [in 1993]. Now that we are in the end game on the Palestinian track, if you don’t have a broad-based coalition, you are going to split the population and that will produce long lasting repercussions.”
Shortly after the vote for early elections, there were reports that Barak was seeking to cobble together a minority government dependent upon the 10 Arab parties.
Avital termed such a coalition “doable” for the purpose of “advancing on the social issues the public wants” addressed. Asked how such a government would approach peace with the Palestinians, Avital said it “could continue negotiating in a more discreet way, and if an agreement is reached, it could call for new elections so as not to pass on it with a minority government.”
Shoval said that although he was not predicting that Barak’s government “will unravel next week,” he remains convinced that its days are numbered.
“It is absolutely predictable that a government that includes the almost extreme right and almost the extreme left cannot hold together for a very long time,” he said. “Even if the present crisis is papered over, this government is certainly not going to be in existence for the remaining three years.”