Patience appears to pay off for incoming leader of Israel

`With steel nerves,' Barak closer to forming his consensus government

June 17, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- For weeks, it looked as if Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak would never form the broad, consensus government he envisioned on election night. The competing factions in Israeli politics threatened to undermine his populist ideal.

But the methodical and persistent retired general never lost his cool, and his patience appears to have paid off. Today, Barak is looking at establishing a government with a comfortable majority, a coalition composed of Labor Party loyalists, the ultra-religious who support the peace process and the secular center.

"All of a sudden it looks like things are going his way," said political scientist Reuven Hazan of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "If he continues to run the government as prime minister the way he has run the coalition-making process and the way he ran his campaign, we're in for some very good times."

After winning the May 17 election, Barak has 45 days to present his government to parliament. His slow crawl toward forming a team got a boost Tuesday when the popular but corruption-tainted leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party announced his resignation.

Aryeh Deri, who is facing a four-year prison term for taking bribes while he was interior minister in the 1980s, had already resigned from the Knesset and the party's political functions.

Shas holds 17 seats in parliament and is the third largest party. But Deri had become a stumbling block to Barak's plan to establish a broad coalition government. The liberal Meretz party and others refused to join a government with Shas if Deri was in control.

Deri's mentor and Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, wanted to be included in a Barak government to ensure that the party's vast social and educational network continued to receive government funds.

During marathon negotiations with potential partners Tuesday, Barak told Shlomo Ben Izri, a Deri ally, that he wanted to include Shas in his government. He also wanted Deri to leave his leadership post. It's up to you, he told Ben Izri.

Deri's resignation, approved yesterday by Yosef and the other members of the Shas Council of Torah Scholars, sets Barak on his way.

"This is the end of the bumpy road. There's no doubt the road is open for serious negotiations," said Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a Knesset member from Barak's Labor Party.

"Deri's decision will help to coalesce or strengthen the proper norms, democracy and the rule of law in the country," Barak said in a statement.

Ben Eliezer said it's possible that Barak could form a government with 77 of the Knesset's 120 members, a significantly larger majority than the razor-thin margins held by recent governments.

But Meretz leader Yossi Sarid said he and the other nine party members might remain out of the coalition "to make sure the [Deri] resignation is genuine."

"Once Meretz feels confident its conditions for joining the government have been met, they will join Barak," he said. "We are determined the new government will be a government of change and not of continuity."

Yossi Verter, a columnist with the newspaper Ha'aretz, praised Barak's patience.

"With steel nerves he rejected pressures which they applied on him to take steps that would signal fear, to set a meeting with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to hurry up and present the minority Cabinet, to give in on the divided [Cabinet]portfolios," Verter said. "It turned out Barak's restraint paid off."

Deri's resignation allows Barak to include Shas in his government, rather than having to turn to the Likud bloc of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barak will be able to move ahead on the peace process with Shas, but it and other religious parties will resist any move to freeze construction in the settlements on the West Bank -- a demand of Israel's Palestinian peace partners.

But if Shas supports a peace agreement that returns the entire Golan Heights to Syria, it will pass easily, said Hazan of Hebrew University. And that will enable Barak to make good on his pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from the security zone in south Lebanon within a year.

Also, the government makeup will mean any gains on the peace front will be offset by losses on the domestic side, political analysts said. Barak's secular supporters want a constitution that secures the place of civil law in a society often dominated by religion. They also want to end military exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Barak's pitch during the election campaign was that Israelis wanted a change. But Hanoch Smith, a veteran Israeli pollster, said Barak is "making what we call a center stand" in forming his coalition government.

"He's doing the cautious center party thing, moving cautiously on all issues. It doesn't look like it will be a reform government of any kind," he said.

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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