A crisis in Israel’s ruling coalition was always a distinct possibility, ever since prime minister Yitzhak Rabin persuaded the secular Meretz and the religious Shas parties to join his Labour-led government But now the strains are beginning to show.
Shas, together with other religious parties, has been calling for the dismissal of Shulamit Aloni, the emphatically secular education minister, virtually since the day she was appointed (see NSS, 6 November 1992). The conflict came to a head last week, when Arieh Den, the Shas minister of the interior, gave Rabin 48 hours to remove Aloni. Otherwise, Den i threatened, his party would leave the government. Labour and Meretz would then be dependent on the votes of five Arab members of the Knesset to form a blocking majority in the 120-seat assembly. Rabin responded by withdrawing portfolios from both Aloni and Den, in order to initiate a week’s breathing space.
Shulamit Aloni’s political career has been one of high principle and abrasive outspokenness. Former prime minister Golda Meir so resented her independence that she relegated Aloni to an unwinnable position on Labour’s list for the 1973 election. Aloni then started her own political .group, the Civil Rights Movement (which later merged with other parties to form Meretz). She confounded her critics by winning three seats.
Since then, Aloni has espoused every liberal cause in Israel, from corruption in public life to campaigns against religious coercion. Above all, she has been perhaps the leading force in the Israeli peace movement, and a passionate advocate of dialogue and an agreement with the Palestinians. Nearly 20 years of struggle brought her into government in a post that the religious parties had come to, regard as their own. The she-devil had become the nation’s headmistress.
Aloni found it difficult to make the transition from conviction protestor to government minister. She has continued to speak her mind and to offend Orthodox sensibilities. This has played into the hands of opponents like Den, who had his own reasons for wanting to precipitate a political row.
Den i is under police investigation for corruption. The hidden agenda behind the present rumpus is that Rabin is being asked to stop charges being pressed against Den, in return for a stable government and a smooth path to the Middle East peace negotiations.
If the government is reshuffled because of Aloni’s departure, any change must include the Labour Minister of Justice, David Libai’i, and his replacement by someone more pliant. Libai’i has proved upright and independent-minded. He was alone in refusing to vote for the deportation of 400 Islamic fundamentalists to Lebanon last December. He has also supported the police investigation against his cabinet colleague.
The allegations against Den i date back to the time when he was minister of the interior in the government of prime minister Shamir. He inherited, and indeed developed, a system of political patronage through earmarking increasing sums for religious institutions. In 1987, these were assigned a budget of 15 million shekels, with no allocation criteria. Three years later, 90 million shekels went to 223 religious institutions, with no accountability and no explanation. If charged and tried, Den i could follow other Shas luminaries into prison. In January, former Shas Knesset member Yair Levy was found guilty of theft and forgery and sentenced to five years.
Shas was set up in 1984 by its spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to promote the cause of the Sephardi underclass. Lacking a socialist heritage but respectful of tradition, Shas voters have tended to be drawn from the ranks of Likud supporters. But, though Orthodox, Shas is not a conservative party. Its leadership under Yosef espoused dovish policies on the Occupied Territories that were closer to Labour than to Likud.
Likud’s new leader, Bibi Netanyahu, has taken advantage of the political confusion to regenerate the right and bring repeated votes of no confidence against the government. The campaign of stabbings by Islamic fundamentalists has provided Likud with political ammunition with which to attack the government’s handling of the security situation and the peace talks.
Rabin’s options are limited. To replace Shas with other religious parties, or with the fai right party Tsomet, would probably make matters worse. Allowing Shas to leave the government would make the essentially conservative Rabin dependent on the dovish Me-retz and the two Arab parties. Ultimately, he may decide that turning a blind eye to corruption and accepting religious demands on education and internal affairs is the lesser of numerous evils—if an agreement with the Palestinians is to be forged.
New Statesman 21 May 1993