Shas party withdraws from Barak's coalition

Religious group allows time for bargaining


JERUSALEM - Throwing Israeli politics into a greater frenzy than usual, the Shas political party quit Prime Minister Ehud Barak's governing coalition yesterday.

Shas' resignation does not take effect for 48 hours, which leaves plenty of time for political bargaining before Barak loses his parliamentary majority.

If the strictly religious Shas party does leave, it will not only reduce Barak to a minority government, but it will also jeopardize his plans for making peace with the Palestinians.

The prime minister would need the support of Shas to get a peace deal approved smoothly by a sizable majority of parliament and by Israelis in a popular referendum.

Government officials said that after a week of intensive, sometimes round-the-clock negotiations, Shas and the prime minister had worked out the major part of an agreement. And Shas politicians made it clear that if an effort was made to address their remaining concerns, they might withdraw their resignations.

"The ball is now in the prime minister's court," Eli Suissa, one of four Shas members in the Cabinet, said after submitting his resignation as infrastructure minister.

Exercising their power as Barak considers a peace agreement, his main goal, Shas' leaders are playing a public game of hardball in their quest to be treated with respect and to be compensated for their support.

They have chiefly been demanding debt relief and tax forgiveness for their religious school system, and the legalization of their pirate radio stations.

Their tactic could backfire. Barak's associates said yesterday that the prime minister was fed up and was contemplating the advantages of reshaping his government without Shas. Such statements are meant to pressure Shas but probably do reflect Barak's thinking.

Shas' latest political maneuver comes as the Israeli and Palestinian sides are both maneuvering toward what would be the endgame of their seven years of peace negotiations.

The Palestinians have viewed the chaos in the Israeli government partly with suspicion and partly with concern.

On the one hand, they suspect that Barak is using his political problems as an excuse to delay meeting their demands. On the other, they worry that they no longer have a partner strong enough to make a good deal and sell it to his public.

Still, they have displayed a willingness to step back. Senior Palestinian officials said yesterday that they would not press the Israelis to stick to a deadline for making their next withdrawal from the West Bank by Friday.

The Palestinians said their leader, Yasser Arafat, was acceding to a request that President Clinton presented in Washington last week.

"We agreed to postpone the implementation for two weeks to examine the possibility of reaching a final agreement," Ahmed Qurei, speaker of the Palestinian legislature and the senior Palestinian negotiator, told Palestinian radio.

Eager to speed up negotiations, the Israeli government is going all-out to persuade the Americans to convene a retreat-style Israeli-Palestinian peace summit in the United States early next month.

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