Barak Government Suffers a Stinging Blow – Its Stability Endangered and its Prestige Diminished.
Last Wednesday, the right-wing opposition in the Knesset succeeded in convincing three governmental partners to vote, in a preliminary reading, for a bill preparing the way for new elections. Barak had threatened the Shas party with dire consequences should its 17 member parliamentary group join the opposition. When Shas did precisely that and the government was on the losing end of a 61-48 vote, it became clear to all that Barak was bluffing and that he could not discipline Shas without threatening the very existence of his government. The only mystery was why this was not clear to Barak.
Parliamentary Background of the Current Crisis
Numbers are a vital element in the formation of a government on the basis of an elected parliament. Barak was highly successful against Netanyahu in the separate voting for the premiership. But, his party did poorly in the Knesset elections, dropping from 34 to 26 seats.. The right-wing annexanationist Likud, in addition to losing the premiership, also did poorly in the Knesset losing 11 seats of its previous 32 . The big winner was Shas, which emerged with 17 seats (more than a half a million votes) as against 10 in the previous. It was crystal clear that if Barak did not want to scuttle the peace process by including the Likud, and its rabid militarist leader, Sharon, in his cabinet, he would have to include Shas as a major partner. . This had to be done despite the fact that the tremendous Shas victory spread panic among large sections of the pro-Barak secular electorate. For many Israeli secularists, Shas is an anathema, an Israeli version of Iranian fundamentalism. Barak was certainly wise to reject the suggestion to invite the Likud, as a major partner, into his coalition. Such an act would have been properly understood in the Arab world and in the diplomatic community as a decision by Israel to turn its back on peace and to prefer domestic, internal peace with the Israeli right over any chances for peace with the Arab world. It was either Shas or the Likud, headed by that arch war criminal, Sharon. Shas was certainly preferable, despite its theocratic tendencies and its single-minded concentration on its own sectoral interests. The “Threat” from Shas
A few words regarding Shas are in order, especially for the non-Israeli reader who may be unaware of the developments that propelled this orthodox, Mizrahi, communitarian force, into the third largest faction in the Knesset with 17 out of 120 seats. Shas has increased its strength in every election over the last15 years.
What is the secret of its success? Who does it represent? Whom does it threaten? Shas is a success because it has rallied under its flag and channeled into its ranks the fifth of the population whose origins are in the mass immigration to Israel from the Arab countries during the first years of Israel’s existence, during the early fifties. The absorption of the new immigrants created a tremendous backwash of resentment and bitterness among the immigrants. We do not have the time or space here to go into the entire story, But, as a matter of routine, the newcomers were forced to adapt to the new conditions by changing their outward behavior, by joining the ruling parties, by learning how to please their superiors in the national and local political hierarchies. In Zionist lore, the absorption of the mass immigration is a success story, which proved, conclusively and thoroughly, the vital need for and the total justification for the young Jewish state. The Israeli establishment never stopped complimenting itself on the absorption and the modernization of huge populations. There was a tacit assumption that with their integration into the labor market (and usually the bottom rungs thereof), the new immigrants would learn to admire and adopt the values and the style of the absorbing society, which as the legend goes, was making tremendous sacrifices to ensure their successful assimilation. In immigrant eyes, the whole process was degrading, their traditions and customs were ridiculed, their own rabbinical authorities demoted and insulted.
In any case, we do know that the mass of the new immigrants felt exploited and manipulated, that they harbored deep and festering dislike, if not outright hatred for the apparatus, which unceasingly declared its dedication to their welfare. The Mizrahi population, along with its entrance into the labor market, was also co-opted into the lower rungs of various Israeli political parties and religious blocs. The story of Shas is the story of the progressive disenchantment of the Mizrahi masses from the predominant Israeli politics and culture. This process of alienation nurtured the formation of political blocs in the major political groups. From 1988, the Mizrahi, religious forces, banded around their own rabbinical authorities and created their own political party. In a relatively short period, this party grew into, for Israel, gigantic proportions. A set of complex and multi-faceted processes resulted in a new cultural and political identity of the Mizrahi masses.
In short, the Mizrahi masses resented the social-economic exploitation and the cultural discrimination that characterized their place in Israeli society. As they succeeded more and more in openly articulating their own resentment, the Ashkenazi establishment began to fear and resent the growing political and cultural strength of Shas. Through Shas, the Mizrahi masses have reasserted their own social dignity, their own values and aspirations as individuals, as groups and as a social movement. The characteristics of this movement do have something in common with the reemergence of fundamentalism as a political force in other places. However, there are also many highly specific characteristics of Shas that must be taken into account if we wish to understand the specific role of Shas in Israel. But this discussion will also have to wait for another occasion.
Stage Set for Conflict
The stage was set for internal cabinet tensions and crises when the Meretz leader, Sarid was given the Education portfolio, placing the Shas educational system under his departmental jurisdiction. Meretz, basically a dovish concentration, has come to symbolize, for many of its voters and opponents, the cause of militant anti-clericalism. Shas had used its growing parliamentary clout to build and develop, over the years, its own pre-school and elementary educational system. In this respect it is important to note that the national religious movement, the MAFDAL, (National Religious Party) the main political sponsor of the settler movement, runs its own massive, separate, educational system, and a separate system, run by the ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi groups is a permanent feature of the fractured Israeli educational network..
Shas has felt from the beginning of the Barak government that Sarid used his ministerial powers in order to starve and strangle its educational system to death. This same system is the very apple of the eye of its unchallenged aging spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Sarid claims that he is only doing his job in subjecting the Shas school network to a modicum of sound administrative and accounting practices. The conflict centering on appropriations for the Shas educational system has been festering for almost ten months. Barak, by virtue of his office, should have squelched the squabble in its earliest stages. Later, it became a wonderful opportunity for Ovadia Yosef to incite his followers against Sarid as the enemy of Torah and for Sarid to present himself as the last living barrier to Shas’s march towards a theocratic Israel.
Confused Priorities, Racist Tendencies
Shas does pose a serious problem for the secular majority in Israeli society. However, there happen to be several more urgent and pressing problems facing Israel. The first is the need to take advantage of what appears to be a serious opportunity to reach peace with its Arab neighbors. The cost, in human life and aspirations, of missing this opportunity is incalculable. Moreover, Israeli society has become, over the years, a classic example of the growing divide between the rich and the poor and is winning in the competition for the world record in the gap between the wealthy and the poor. These issues are more important than the religion-state issue and they are probably an important key for solving it. The relations between Shas and secular democrats must be seen in the light of the main priorities, peace and social justice.
Even if we assume that Sarid is right about the operational level of Shas school system, and this is far from certain, his intervention is inevitably seen by the hundreds of thousands of Shas supporters as the secular revenge for Shas’s successes. It would appear that the inefficiencies and inefficient administration of the Shas school system, to the degree that they do exist, are not something all that rare and unknown in the Israeli governmental apparatus. Shas is absolutely right when it feels that almost every area of administration would produce embarrassing data if and when submitted to tight financial, accounting and organizational surveillance.
While it is true that Shas’s theocratic tendencies are a genuine source of concern, it is also true, that many Ashkenazi middle class Israelis fear and abhor Shas on a racist basis. For them, the rise of Shas seems to be the rise of the rabble, and they are unable, or unwilling to understand that Shas expresses decades of exploitation and frustrations. The strength of fundamentalist sentiments cannot be vitiated by preaching modern liberal values to the victims of free market economic vicissitudes or by invoking socialist-Zionist ideals to a public which feels that it has been insulted and degraded by the socialist-Zionist institutions which ‘absorbed’ it into Israeli life.
Secularists who want to pursue the fight against Shas here and now and with all the power at their disposal claim that Shas is really a right wing outfit which will defect from the government in any critical vote on the peace issue and leave the peace camp high and dry. In Shas, there are such tendencies, but there are other, important counter-tendencies. Time and again, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has issued clear dovish statements that have the force of religious rulings. It is clear that Rabbi Yosef, the absolute leader of Shas, is in many senses, ‘to the left’ of large sections of his constituency.
No one can deny that Shas, as far as the peace process is concerned, is a typical fence sitter. It would be naïve to consider it as a consistent force for peace, but it would be equally wrong to refuse to make every effort to make it easier for Shas to join the peace front. This is no easy matter for it, as the peace camp is lead by militant secularists like Sarid and his party, Meretz. At any rate, Sarid’s eagerness to lead the campaign to modernize and rationalize the Shas school system has caused tremendous harm to the cause of peace. Given, the hard-line positions and the hawkish discourse of Barak and his main buddy, Foreign Minister, David Levy, it is hard to blame Shas for refusing to run up the flag of peace. It is hard to make demands on Shas when Barak and his government consistently hide from the public the truth that peace is possible only on the basis of genuine concessions. Barak, himself, has never inspired the peace process and constantly presents himself to the Israeli public as even less forthcoming than his predecessor, Netanyahu. When the Syrian peace track was effectively scuttled by Barak, neither Meretz nor the Labor doves, such as Beilin and Ben Ami, had anything to say. Why must Shas be more consistent than Barak who drags his feet, without any vision or inspiration? Is Shas, with its large nationalist, hawkish constituency, supposed to antagonize much of its own support by favoring concessions towards a peace that never gets off the ground? Is Shas supposed to go out on limb even as Barak and Levy continue to determine that Arafat and the Palestinians are ‘not ready’ for peace and ‘have not internalized’ the need for peace??
Barak has displayed every single one of his negative qualities in dealing with the Shas-Meretz crisis. First of all, he stalled and then he stalled some more, for months and months. Shas spoke with complete candor: unless its demands regarding its school system, phrased as a demand that all Israeli children be treated equally, were met, it would not consider itself a loyal member of the coalition and enjoy the option of voting with the opposition. Instead of solving the outstanding problem in the Ministry of Education, Barak decided, rather suddenly and petulantly that Shas’s behavior was unacceptable and that they had to prove their coalition loyalty before he would deal with their demands. He was bluffing and Shas called his bluff. Barak suffered a stinging blow when a 61–48 vote approved the first legislative step towards new elections.
Sarid dragged Meretz into a battle with Shas that could not be won. Unable to make up his mind on the issue, Barak convinced himself that Shas would have to recognize his special status as the prime minister. The Meretz-Barak ‘squeeze play’ on Shas flopped miserably and ended with a resounding victory for the right and the anti-peace camp.
Confused priorities in the Meretz leadership and Barak’s arrogance have pushed the government to the brink. This is especially appalling because these developments may well obliterate the shrinking prospects for peace. The peace process, as we all know, was not doing too well before this new obstacle was laid on its path. The death of the Syrian president, Hafez Assad, yesterday is yet another proof, if any such proof was needed, that time is a limited commodity in the Middle East.