A Costly Win


Since the start of Israel’s election campaign last October,
the flamboyant leader of the secular-rights Shinui Party had been promising a
secular revolution in Israel.

This week Yosef “Tommy” Lapid seemed to have a golden
opportunity to fulfill his promises when Shinui — which became Israel’s third
largest party after the Jan. 28 elections — agreed to join Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon’s new Likud-led government.

But the initial signs for a radical shift in
secular-religious relations were not auspicious: Shinui, which has 15 Knesset
seats, backed off much of its agenda when it compromised with the National
Religious Party (NRP) on the guidelines of the prospective government.
Moreover, political analysts are questioning just how much a government based
on Likud, Shinui, the NRP and the hawkish National Union bloc — but without the
Labor Party — will be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians.

The National Union, which is staunchly opposed to the
Palestinian state Sharon says he supports under certain conditions, tentatively
agreed Tuesday to join the government. The inclusion of the seven-member bloc
would give Sharon a 68-seat coalition and a bit of breathing room in the
120-member Knesset. Sharon was expected to present his government to the Knesset
on Thursday.

The form of that government took some shape Wednesday, when
Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance
Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position.
Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who
turned it down. But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal
from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the
finance portfolio late Wednesday.

According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet
appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants
to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon’s absence.

Before Shinui and the NRP signed initial coalition
agreements with the Likud on Monday, they worked out a bilateral deal on
secular-religious affairs that was mediated by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing mayor
of Jerusalem.

First they agreed to annul the “Tal Law,” which allows for
blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and enables
fervently Orthodox men to join the Israeli work force without having to serve
first in the army. On the face of it, canceling the Tal Law seems like a major
step forward in the campaign for equality between secular and fervently
Orthodox Israelis. But the Shinui-NRP agreement gives no indication of what
will replace the Tal Law, stipulating only that a committee will propose new
legislation within a year.

It is therefore not at all clear that Shinui made any gains
at all on one of its main election promises: equal army or national service for
all. Nor did Shinui achieve dramatic breakthroughs on two other key election
promises: civil marriage and public transport on the Sabbath. The Shinui-NRP
deal does provide a civil marriage option for an estimated 250,000 people
barred from marrying by the Chief Rabbinate — for example, when one of the
partners is not halachically Jewish or when a descendant of a priestly caste
seeks to marry a divorcee.

But the key principle — offering a civil marriage option for
all Israelis — is not part of the deal. Nor is there any advance on public
transport on the Sabbath: Where such services exist, they will continue; where
they don’t, nothing will be done to introduce them.

Perhaps most importantly, the Shinui-NRP deal leaves the
Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel intact. There is no
recognition of the Conservative or Reform streams nor any upgrading of their
secondary status in Israel. Indeed, except on civil marriage and Sabbath
transport, Shinui agrees to back the status quo on religious affairs.

So binding is this commitment that even on civil marriage,
Shinui’s Knesset members are no longer free to back bills presented by
individual members without the backing of their parties; the most they can do
is abstain if such proposals come to a vote. Acknowledging that Shinui
legislators no longer could support a private member’s bill on civil marriage
that they had proposed jointly with a Labor legislator, Shinui’s Yehudit Naot
declared Monday, “There are things you just can’t do when you’re in
government.”

A few days before he signed the coalition deal, Lapid
insisted that “whether we end up in the government or not, I see in our
agreement with the NRP a new chapter in the relations between secular and
moderate religious people in Israel.”

However, few political analysts would agree.

“Where’s the change?” the left-leaning secular daily
Ha’aretz asked in a scathing editorial Monday, playing on the Hebrew meaning of
Shinui’s name.

The Shinui-NRP deal “raises concern that in their eagerness
to join the government, Shinui’s leaders have given up some of the most
significant of their principles: freedom of religion and freedom from
religion,” Ha’aretz argued.

The paper also pointed out that Shinui is not pushing for
the enactment of more basic laws enshrining individual and social rights or the
completion of a full-fledged constitution.

“If Shinui turns into another ruling party with no agenda,”
the paper warned, “its fate will be the same as the centrist parties that
preceded it” — all of which quickly disintegrated.

Lapid blames Labor for staying outside the coalition,
missing the chance to establish an all-secular government that would have been
able to make far more radical changes to the status quo.

Labor’s secretary-general, Ophir Pines-Paz, retorts that
Shinui torpedoed any chance for a secular government by rushing to cut a deal
with the NRP — the patron of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip — that made Labor’s participation in the government nearly impossible.

The presence of the NRP and National Union in the coalition
raises a second question: Will the new government, with its right-wing bias, be
able to move toward peace with the Palestinians?

NRP leaders insist they will not accept Palestinian
statehood in any shape or form, even though that is the declared aim of the
“road map” toward peace being prepared by the diplomatic “Quartet” of the
United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Sharon has publicly
accepted the gist of the road map, though Israel is suggesting certain changes
that will make the Palestinians’ responsibilities more explicit.

To appease the NRP, Sharon promised that government
guidelines would include not a commitment to a Palestinian state but a
reference to a speech Sharon delivered last December, when he outlined his
vision of phased, performance-based progress to Palestinian statehood.

“Only once a specific phase has been implemented,” Sharon
said then, “will progress to the next phase be possible.”

But what happens if there is genuine progress? Would the NRP
stay in the coalition or pull out, forcing Sharon to form a new government,
possibly with Labor?

The same uncertainty surrounds the durability of Sharon’s
pact with National Union, which is considered far more hawkish than the NRP.
National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman had refused to accept any mention of a
Palestinian state in the government guidelines. But he agreed with Likud
negotiators Tuesday that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought
before the Cabinet “if and when it becomes relevant.”

In his coalition talks with Labor, Sharon said he was convinced
that after an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq the international community
would turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When that
happened, he told Labor leaders, he would be ready to make far-reaching
compromises. That statement kept Labor interested, but the talks broke down
when Sharon refused to commit himself in writing.

The big question pundits are asking is whether the phased
style Sharon favors in peacemaking applies to his coalition building as well.
First, he strikes deals with Shinui, NRP and National Union, dealing mainly
with economic and social issues; then, pundits say, when Sharon wants to move
on the Palestinian track, Labor will again be invited to join the government on
the basis of an agreed peace program.

Then again, this narrow coalition, with all its limitations,
could be all Sharon really wants. Even with Labor consigned to the opposition,
Sharon knows it would support any peace efforts he chooses to make — just the
way Labor supported former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s peacemaking with
Egypt from the opposition.

JTA’s Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.