Although he was on the verge of assembling a coalition government poised and committed to making peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors, Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak appears to have glossed over domestic conflicts.
“There are a lot of conflicting interests in the coalition,” observed Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. “The question is whether the parties are going to agree to disagree, or will areas of disagreement keep coming up and hobble the government.”
Steinberg noted, for instance, that when the United Torah Judaism party joined the coalition this week, it did so with a stipulation from Barak that the status quo on religious issues would be preserved. But he said the left-wing, secular Meretz party, which is also expected to join the coalition, has said it “would not be bound by such an agreement.”
“That sets up a formula where there will be a split in the government when the issue comes up. Will it bring down the government?” he asked. “Probably not in the beginning, but the contradictions have not been resolved.”
Colette Avital, Israel’s former consul general in New York and a Labor Party candidate for the Knesset, said last week that it was unclear how Barak would address the pluralism issue. But she said he wants to create an atmosphere where all Jews will feel at home in Israel.
Tensions between the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and Conservative and Reform Jews have escalated in recent years because the High Court of Justice has ruled consistently against Orthodox hegemony over religious affairs and institutions. The tensions led to a demonstration earlier this year in which 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews staged a peaceful protest outside the court in Jerusalem.
Steinberg pointed out that some of the ultra-Orthodox parties that have fought to continue Orthodox monopoly over such things as conversions, marriages and burials were strengthened in the May 17 elections. The Shas party, for instance, won 17 seats in the Knesset — up from 10 in the last election three years ago. Shas leaders agreed in principle Wednesday to join the coalition, and its Council of Torah Sages was expected to concur.
Representing Jews of Middle Eastern and African descent, Shas agreed to share the religious affairs portfolio with the National Religious Party, an ultra-Orthodox party of Ashkenazim of European descent that earlier joined the coalition. The tentative agreement called for a Shas representative to become minister but to allow NRP representatives to hold the second and third spots. Shas, which has a vast network of religious and social welfare organizations, is dependent on the religious affairs ministry for funding.
An NRP leader, Meir Porush, said his party joined the coalition to ensure draft deferments for rabbinical students, who last year accounted for 7.8 percent of Israelis eligible for the draft. As Labor Party leader, Barak had called for the end of such deferments. The High Court of Justice called them illegal but gave the Knesset time to deal with the matter.
The NRP’s coalition agreement calls for legitimate rabbinical students to still receive deferments, but it calls for expelling those who only pretend to study. Those expelled then would be subject to minimal military service in units attentive to their needs.
Steinberg noted also that the immigrant party Israel B’Aliya has joined the coalition and that its leader, Natan Sharansky, has been appointed Interior Minister, a coveted post long held by Shas. Sharansky had campaigned for the ministry, saying that Shas had wielded it to deny Jewish recognition to immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
As Barak and his negotiating team worked late this week to form a government to present to the Knesset for approval Monday, observers said it was likely to include the Center Party, composed of defectors from other parties. If everything fell into place, the combined strength of those parties — they hold 75 of the 120 Knesset seats — would give Barak the solid, broad-based coalition he has sought.
Notably absent is expected to be the governing Likud Party. Barak handily defeated its standard-bearer, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his bid for re-election. Efforts by Barak last week to bring Likud into the coalition collapsed when he apparently refused to adopt the hard-line negotiating posture Netanyahu assumed.
Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud leader, dismissed complaints leveled by some party members against acting party chairman Ariel Sharon for the way he handled the talks with Barak. Critics charged that he was only interested in ensuring for himself the finance ministry portfolio and did not have the best interests of the party in mind.
But Blumenthal said he “behaved in a proper way. After each meeting [with Barak], he convened us and gave us details about the conversations. He didn’t look out just for himself.
“The question was whether the talks Barak had with Likud were genuine and whether he really wanted Likud in the coalition as a partner. Yesterday there was a feeling by some that maybe he betrayed us and was using us as a bridge to bring in Shas.”
Blumenthal said she does not agree with such speculation and believes Barak “really wanted us in the coalition. But he had problems. Many people told him Shas was a more convenient [coalition partner] because its 17 Knesset members are very obedient and Likud’s 19 members would have given him trouble when it came to the peace talks.”
She noted, for instance, that Likud is against the entire Oslo peace accord with the Palestinians and surrendering the Golan Heights.
Blumenthal pointed out that there were many members of the Labor Party who opposed Likud joining the coalition because Likud would have received five portfolios. A coalition with Shas would give Shas only four, saving an extra ministry for Labor members.
She said she had opposed joining the coalition from the start, believing that Likud should only be in power or in opposition, not play second fiddle.
Of Barak and the peace process, Blumenthal said: “Let’s see how much he gives up. I hope he does not give up too much.”