Barak bows to Shas demand for more power


JERUSALEM-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak prevented his government from collapsing last night, but only by increasing the power of his most demanding coalition partner, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

The end of Israel's latest government crisis neared when the liberal Meretz Party decided to give up its seats in Barak's Cabinet while continuing to back Barak's coalition on parliamentary votes.

As often happens in Israeli politics, the crisis was not over the peace process, which commands so much attention from the outside world.

It was over the deep divide between the religious and secular sides of Israeli society.

Meretz had long been at loggerheads with Shas over influence within the state education ministry.

Education Minister Yossi Sarid, a Meretz leader seen as a secular standard-bearer, refused to give his deputy, a member of Shas, control over the religious movement's financially troubled school system.

The ministry is working on a rescue package for the schools, but Sarid had insisted that they conform with state educational standards.

Shas wanted more freedom to run its schools as it wished, while keeping the state's subsidies. With Meretz out of the government, the way appeared clear for the Shas deputy to carry out the party's designs.

Barak wanted to keep Shas within his coalition to ensure the support of the party's 17 members of parliament on future peace agreements with the Palestinians and possibly with Syria.

Without Shas, he would have had to form a fragile minority government and rely on the votes of Israeli-Arab members.

Barak was unable to extract any loyalty pledge from Shas yesterday.

In a statement, party spokesman Itzik Sudri said, "There will be no prior commitment on political issues, and [Shas] demands cooperation and constant updating on the peace process."

While restoring a measure of stability, the departure of Meretz underscored anew the deep divisions between religious and secular populations and institutions in Israel and the likelihood of similar troubles in the future.

The crisis erupted two weeks ago when Shas members, along with two other coalition parties, voted against Barak on an opposition-sponsored bill calling for early elections.

Barak indicated at the time that he could do without the dissident parties in his government.

But political reality quickly forced Barak into stepped-up negotiations to keep Shas in his government.

The key issues were funding for and control over Shas's school network, which in the past has been beset by corruption.

In an act of brinkmanship, Shas formally resigned its Cabinet seats Tuesday.

Under Israeli law, the resignations were to take effect in 48 hours, giving Barak until today to work out a solution.

The Meretz leadership had previously offered to quit the government to help Barak save his coalition.

One of the party's chief goals is to advance the peace process, and its leaders don't want to be seen as a cause of a government collapse in the final stages of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Barak didn't accept Meretz's offer at the time, but he later made clear that he wanted to dilute Sarid's power by appointing a ministerial committee to oversee Shas schools.

Sarid said yesterday, "For a year we've been stuck in a crisis that I didn't create. This crisis is causing disgust among all Israeli citizens, and we don't want to be part of it."

He said that giving the Shas deputy education minister control over the movement's schools amounted to a "bad joke."

But with a vote of no confidence in the government looming Monday in parliament, he said his party didn't want "to assume responsibility for the Cabinet's downfall ''

Barak, in a statement issued by his office, said he valued the steps taken to achieve progress on the peace process and continued to see Meretz as "a natural party and ally."

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