Brash Israeli party surges

Ultra-Orthodox Shas becomes third biggest at expense of Likud

It demands Cabinet post

May 19, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel -- In Israel's elections, Yoshua Sadon lost big. He didn't run for political office, but he lost nonetheless.

Moshe Abutbul was a winner, even though he wasn't a candidate.

Sadon is a veteran member of the Likud, the hard-line political bloc of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that suffered a withering defeat in Monday's elections.

Abutbul is a leader of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party of North African Jews that scored a big victory in the parliamentary elections. Shas increased its seats from 10 to 17, making it the third-largest party in Israel's 120-member parliament, or Knesset.

"The truth is Shas got all its new power from the Likud," said a resolute Sadon, a 40-year-old carpenter. "Naturally, we're sad. We've been with the Likud for decades. But it's a democracy here, and that's the way it goes."

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak soundly defeated Netanyahu. The Likud lost 13 of its 32 seats in the parliament. Since 1977, when the Likud first broke the Labor Party's hold on power, one or the other has ruled the country's coalition governments.

Now, as the newly elected prime minister forms his government, Likud may find itself on the sidelines. Shas, a key coalition partner of Netanyahu, is looking for a way in.

Israelis who want to halt the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox on their lives gave Barak his win. Their sentiment also led to an increase in the parliamentary representation of political parties favored by Israel's secular majority.

During the campaign, Shas was a target of Israel B'Aliya, the major Russian immigrants party; the left-wing Meretz Party, and the resurrected right-wing but anti-Orthodox Shinui Party. Barak and his political allies said they would not discuss the new coalition with Shas leader Ariyeh Deri.

Deri, a power broker in Israel's fractious coalition governments for 15 years, was convicted earlier this year in a political corruption scandal. The guilty verdict and prison sentence unleashed a vicious assault by Shas members on Israel's judiciary and rule of law. Their attacks incensed and mobilized secular Israel.

Shas relies on government subsidies to run its vast network of social, educational and religious institutions, organizations that have in turn increased its political sway. Without a place in the government, Shas cannot secure its government funds.

Last night, Deri announced he was giving up his seat in parliament and retiring from politics. His decision paves the way for Barak and the others to consider including Shas in a new government.

"I shall engage in mainly social, spiritual matters as chairman of the movement and my friends will do the political work and we shall complement each other," said Deri, a charismatic rabbi-politician who is appealing his conviction. "Shas reached a peak that nobody dreamt it would reach. I shall continue to do everything within my power to serve this public."

Yossi Beilin, a Barak ally and leading member of the Labor Party, said Deri's decision made it possible for him to recommend to Barak that he not boycott Shas.

Natan Sharansky, the Israel B'Aliya Party leader who is expected to be a key figure in Barak's new government, said he can envision a coalition with Shas."The broader a coalition, the better. I don't see myself excluding any party which represents a seriously big part of Israel," he added.

Barak, who pledged to revive the stalled Middle East peace process, campaigned on a message of unifying the Jewish state, which has been increasingly divided along religious and ethnic lines. He has said he wants a broad coalition that would give him more than the required 61 votes he needs for a majority in the Knesset.

Including Shas in his government would give Barak support for his peace initiatives; Shas supported the Oslo peace accords when other religious and nationalist parties opposed them.

But during the campaign, Barak said he would strip Shas of its control of the Interior Ministry, a Cabinet post that is a priority of Sharansky's party, which draws its support from Russian immigrants. Barak also pledged to reduce the financial subsidies given to the religious parties.

"In Israel politics are always changing. Our standing with Barak can change, too," said Abutbul, the deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh, a blue-collar town that has long been a Likud stronghold.

"He can see as well as anyone that we have power with the people, and will make his coalition decisions accordingly."

When Barak addressed thousands of his supporters in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square early yesterday, shouts of "Keep Out Shas" could be heard.

"Shas has become a true threat to the democratic and Zionist nature of the country. Let them be outside at least for a while," said Yossi Sarid, the Meretz Party leader and an expected coalition partner.

The idea insults Abutbul.

"If we don't get the Ministry of the Interior, there will be a big problem for Barak," said Abutbul.

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