In a bid to assuage critics of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s civil reforms, the minister in charge of religious-secular issues has proposed his own sweeping proposals. But observers believe Barak’s proposals are nothing but campaign gimmicks that will never be realized.
“It’s his best chance to get back the support of the new immigrants,” said former Interior Minister Natan Sharansky. “The issue which perhaps irritates them no less than giving away the Golan Heights is religious coercion. So that is the way he is trying to bring them back.”
But Bernard Susser, a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said he believed Barak is simply “grasping for straws fearing that the peace process is going to fail. If it fails, this is his fall back position that [he hopes would] inspire support and send a ringing warning to the religious parties that if they stay out of his government, the price they will pay will be very high.”
Among Barak’s proposals are the right to have civil marriages in Israel, creating a constitution in a year that would guarantee equality between Jews and non-Jews, permitting transportation on Shabbat, requiring some form of national service for all, and a broad curriculum — including civics — for all state-funded schools.
The minister dealing with religious-secular reforms, Rabbi Michael Melchior, came up with his own set of proposals this week. They include:
n Adopting a five-day work week, giving the nation a day off on Saturdays as well as Sundays;
n Opening cultural activities, entertainment and sports facilities on Saturdays, but closing all non-vital commercial and business activity;
n Shifting all professional sports activities from Saturday to Sunday;
n Operating public transportation lines on Saturdays in line with the needs of each local population;
Barak immediately embraced the proposals and Melchior said they would only work if they were accepted as a single unit because since they include ideas to balance the conflicting demands of both sides of the religious-secular debate.
Sharansky, in earlier remarks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he did not believe Barak would be able to “find a solution to the issue of transportation on Shabbat.” We said his party, Yisroel B’Aliyah, suggested in 1996 one possible solution — privatize the country’s buses.
“But instead of a partial solution, [Barak] is going for a civil war,” said Sharansky.
Barak defended his proposals during a town hall meeting at UJA-Federation headquarters in Manhattan earlier this month. And he stressed that he his proposals would be enacted only after there has been “negotiation and dialogue” with all groups in Israel.
“I will remain sensitive to the religious parties in Israel and will work with them to ensure that the unity of Israel will never be hurt,” he vowed.
Barak said he wanted to create a “state that succeeds in being Jewish and democratic.” And he drew applause when he said, “We do not intend to separate religion from the state. We intend to separate religion from politics. … We have to adopt Judaism as a part of our identity, but the reforms we are doing now will make Israel an open, pluralistic society.”
“I’m a great believer in an Israel never ignores its roots,” Barak continued. “I believe [also that] Israel should become a modern society. We have to find a way to complete a constitution and find a way for [non-Jewish] immigrants who can’t marry now to marry.”
And he said that because Saturday is the only non-working day in Israel, the lack of public transportation that day has proven a hardship for those without cars. He said they “can’t go visiting, seeing people in hospitals, swimming in the sea or to entertainment centers that are open in many places.”
Barak expressed confidence that “common sense and Jewish solidarity will prevail.”
An opposition leader, Silvan Shalom of the Likud Party, said that not only is Barak appealing to Russian immigrants but “those who gave him a victory in 1999 — mostly secular and many non-Jews.” He said Barak is hoping they embrace his reforms and “forget what he did until now. But I don’t think he will succeed. Everything has to be done with all the groups in the State of Israel [and] we are not accepting his reforms.”
Although Ariel Sharon, chairman of the Likud Party, has voiced support for a constitution, Shalom said it is only “with the understanding of all groups and not just 61 of the 120 members of the Knesset. He heard from Meimad [Party leaders] that if he operates buses on the Sabbath, they will leave [his coalition]. He is afraid that if they leave, they would bring him down.”
Susser said that he did not foresee any possibility that some of the reforms Barak wants, such as a constitution, are possible given the secular-religious divide in the country.
“Many in Israel — especially the secular — see a constitution as a panacea, and the separation of church and state as a way to make us like a normal country,” he said. “But even if that is legislated, it is the courts that by their very nature solve the ethnic, cultural and religious divide.”
Susser said that only if Barak became convinced that the religious parties will never be a part of his government would he try, for instance, to get El Al to begin flying on the Sabbath and pursue civil marriages.
“But as long as there is a chance that the religious parties might form a coalition with him, he does not want to antagonize them unduly,” he said. “I believe the chances are small [of him pursuing] those scare tactics and attempting to win public support.”
He noted that the Shas Party won 17 Knesset seats in the last election and that with the imprisonment of their former leader on corruption charges, it is “unlikely” that their support will diminish.
“There were 27 religious members of [Barak’s former] government and I find it hard to believe the numbers will be substantially different in the near future,” he said.