May/June 2000

Barak's Illusions

By Daniel Bloch

(June 18) - Prime Minister Ehud Barak will gain almost nothing if he yields to all of Shas's demands. He will surely find himself, very soon, confronting them in some other crisis, but then it will be without the support of most of the electorate that brought him into power.

Barak believes that Shas is a one-issue party with a big appetite, and that once he satisfies their main demands, they will let him move forward with his agenda. But this is just an illusion. Shas long ago moved to the right side of the political map and has no intention of being more moderate than the Likud - their main rival on election day. Shas will, of course, take the money and then block the peace process.

Barak achieved his landslide personal victory mainly because he promised four things: withdrawal from Lebanon, the primacy of the rule of law, priority to the social needs of our society and the continuation of the peace process on the basis of territory for peace.

In almost a year he has achieved only one of these goals - getting out of Lebanon. Now, to avoid new elections and stay in power, he is ready to take the risk and renege on his other three promises.

By yielding to Shas's demands, without any commitment towards agreements with the Palestinians and Syria, Barak will not be able to move on his peace agenda. The only commitments he is demanding from Shas appear to be technical and cynically connected with the survival of his government.

Giving Shas more money, beyond what its school system is really entitled to, is illegal and immoral. Giving broadcasting licenses specifically to Shas's pirate radio stations is a mockery of the principle of equality before the law. Why just them? Why not all pirate radio stations? Or why not allow every political party and ideological group to operate radio stations under the same conditions that Shas demands?

Barak might buy some time from Shas for a very heavy price tag. In the meantime, he will lose his core group of supporters, those who unequivocally voiced their sentiments at Kikar Rabin on the night of his big victory: "Just without Shas."

These voices that resent yielding to Shas's demands are not anti-Mizrahi "racists." They are more than happy with the prominent leadership roles of people like David Levy or Shlomo Ben-Ami. They do not hate religion or resent traditionalism.

They are against Shas's corrupt methods, and its use of public funds for political needs, disguised as religious and educational services. They will not accept sacrificing Meretz, Yossi Sarid and the principles of honesty and majority rule for the false blessings of Rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Yitzhak Kadourie.

Barak made a grave mistake a year ago when he did not reach a coalition agreement with the Likud, based on the point reached by Binyamin Netanyahu in his peace talks, both with Arafat and Assad. There was no reason to fear that partnership with Ariel Sharon would hinder the process more than a coalition with Shas, the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky.

With the Likud, Barak could have also forged an agreement to abolish the current harmful and dangerous electoral system, and create a system that would once again strengthen the two major parties.

It seems too late for such a coalition, although Barak will only gain in popularity if he tries to form one, even if the Likud refuses to go along with him. Barak's only option now is to fire all the ministers that voted for early elections, and set up a narrow or even a minority coalition for a short period, while calling for early elections in November.

He should then use the time left to reach a framework agreement with the Palestinians and make the election a de facto referendum on that deal.

During the election campaign, if the system is not changed, Barak should call on all supporters of the peace process to vote for him and his party. He could reach out to the parties that declare their support for his candidacy and extract an unconditional promise not to join any other candidate or any move to bring his government down in the next four years.

I am sure that if Barak does this, he will win big. If not, he will survive for few more months and most likely lose the next election.

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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