Since taking office last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has battled on two fronts in the effort to finalize peace agreements with his neighbors. The obvious front involved the parties on the other side of the table: the Syrians and the Palestinians. But the other fight takes place within Israel itself. It involves Mr. Barak’s coalition partners, his ostensible allies and maybe the more difficult of the two antagonists. This week, the strains within the Cabinet threatened to derail the peace process. A deal has been made and the differences papered over — for now. But the government may have only postponed its reckoning and upped the ante in the process.
Although Mr. Barak won the job of prime minister in a landslide 11 months ago, his One Israel party took only 26 seats. He needed to fashion an unwieldy six-party coalition government to claim a majority in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament. Key among those partners was Shas, a conservative religious party whose 17 seats made it the second-largest group in the coalition.
Mr. Barak was motivated by more than political expediency. The prime minister has said that he wants a broad national consensus behind any peace deal. Shas is critical to achieving that goal. It represents the Sephardic Jews from Spain and the Middle East who have been underrepresented in Israel’s politics. Although some members oppose any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, the party’s religious leader has long favored a land-for-peace deal with some conditions.
Shas has been a difficult partner. Last September, its parliamentary members refused to back the interim peace accord Mr. Barak had worked out with the Palestinians in Egypt. In November, the party blocked a bill to allow public transportation and entertainment establishments to operate on the Sabbath. They threatened a no-confidence motion because Mr. Barak flew on the Sabbath. Nine Shas legislators voted against the government’s plan to turn over Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem, to the Palestinians.
All the while, a crisis was brewing over the religious schools that the party runs. This week, it erupted. Shas has demanded $6 million in government funds to prop up their ailing school system. Education Minister Yossi Sarid, a member of the secular, leftist Meretz party that has 10 seats in the Parliament, refused. He was concerned by allegations of corruption and incompetence within the program and wanted oversight of the funds. Shas refused and threatened to pull its four ministers from the Cabinet, which would have toppled the government, forced elections and frozen the peace process.
Unwilling to take that chance, Mr. Barak capitulated. Knowing that Meretz’s support for a peace agreement was firm, he gave Shas what it wanted and accepted Mr. Sarid’s resignation. Meretz withdrew from the government, but promised to vote for any peace agreement. In return, Mr. Barak won from Shas control of the agency that oversees land distribution and development. The party also promised to refrain from calling for new elections.
The prime minister’s victory may prove fleeting, however. Shas did not promise to support a peace agreement when it is agreed upon. With the departure of one of its chief rivals, Shas now has more influence within the Cabinet. Worse, the prime minister looks badly diminished.
Mr. Barak has been forced to engage in the same sort of coldblooded tactical maneuver that he has denounced in the past. There is little now to distinguish him from the career politicians he once castigated for putting power before principle. In addition, giving in to Shas has enraged many secular Israelis who otherwise support the government.
This growing split between secular and religious Jews is the most difficult and potentially dangerous division in Israel. The debate about Israel’s identity began as soon as the state was founded. In recent years, the government has made more concessions to religious groups to win their support on other fronts. While the extremist threats to derail the peace process have received the most attention in the press, the encroachment of religion into other parts of daily life in Israel is no less contentious. As a result, the middle ground is eroding, and political life is becoming increasingly nasty.
Mr. Barak rightly believes that he needs the widest possible coalition to deliver on his promise to make peace. That rules out a minority government. Only a national consensus will permit Israel to sign a deal with the Palestinians and the Syrians. But Israel cannot make peace with its neighbors if it is not at peace with itself.
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