December 30, 1999
Knesset budget fight tests the ties that bind Shas and Barak
As sure as death and taxes, Israelis can count on a coalition crisis every year in the last week of December. It happened three times to the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu, and no one was surprised that this month it happened to his Labor successor, Ehud Barak.
By law, the state budget must pass the Knesset by midnight on December 31. In Israel's system of multi-party coalitions, December is horse-trading time. This is the season for every party to extract as succulent a slice of the cake as possible for its institutions and interest groups.
If they don't get it now, they suspect they won't get it at all. Budgets have to be balanced.
The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas, now the third largest party in the Knesset, is a master in this annual market place. Its agenda is narrow and sectarian, its deputies disciplined and obedient; what its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, decrees is law. If he says quit, they quit. Yosef makes no secret that he ordered his 17 Knesset members to join Barak's government for one reason only: to save Shas's education network from bankruptcy.
Shas is a hybrid. It is a religious party and an ethnic party. It leaders are rabbis, with the kind of beards, black hats and dark suits that would look equally at home in a Lithuanian yeshiva. Most of its voters are blue-collar workers from the inner-city slums and neglected development towns, "traditional" Jews who go to synagogue on Saturday morning and soccer games on Saturday afternoon.
On the life-or-death issues that divide the nation, Rabbi Yosef is a dove who believes that lives matter more than territory, however holy. Most of his voters are hawks, who don't trust the Arabs and idolized Menachem Begin before they discovered "the Rav."
This year, Shas needed the taxpayers' millions more urgently than ever. Its school network was in debt to the tune of 89 million shekels ($22 million), with not enough coming in, creditors losing patience and teachers' salaries to be paid (or not paid) month after month after month.
Barak promised to bail them out, but conditionally. Shas had to open its schools and its ledgers to scrutiny. It had to close uneconomic and unregistered classes, fire corrupt administrators. And Education Minister Yossi Sarid, leader of the liberal Meretz, was determined to keep them to the bargain.
Although funding started to flow, Shas complained that it was too little, too slow. It accused Sarid of discrimination, against religion and against Sephardim. The budget season was the time to force Barak to call the Education Minister to heel. "If we don't get the money, and a lot more besides," they said, "we're out."
Barak and Finance Minister Avraham Shohat thought they had neutralized Shas by doing a deal with the other religious parties, the National Religious Party (NRP) and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism. With their votes, the budget would squeak through, regardless of Shas's 17. So, Shas would play ball.
The equation turned out to be less simple than Barak, the great problem-solver, calculated. Protesting that the Ashkenazim were getting money for their schools, while the underprivileged Sephardim were being left out again, Rabbi Yosef ordered his three cabinet ministers to submit their resignations. And, unexpectedly, United Torah announced that if Shas went, it would go too. It would not allow Tommy Lapid's stridently anti-clerical Shinui, with six MKs, to score points by saving Barak from defeat.
In the end, Israeli governments have never fallen because of budgets. Principles are compromised, dissidents are paid off.
But Barak had an extra, more pressing reason, for keeping Shas on his team: the prospect of a peace agreement with Syria. Without Rabbi Yosef's 17 good and true men, a treaty would probably not win the necessary absolute majority of 61 votes for Knesset ratification; without a goodly share of the 430,000 Shas voters, Barak would be hard-pressed to win the promised referendum.
Rabbi Yosef has been playing hard to get, consulting ex-generals of all political hues, and warning Barak not to take his dovish tendencies for granted. The Shas rank and file would relish instructions to vote against returning the Golan Heights to Syria. The Prime Minister faces a revolt from other, smaller coalition parties. Both the NRP and Natan Sharansky's Russian immigrant Yisrael B'aliyah are already campaigning against the evacuation.
The Shas vote is a potent weapon in Rabbi Yosef's locker. If Barak wants it, he will have to pay. And pay. And pay. Apparently he does. As The Jewish Journal went to press, Shas agreed to remain in the government.
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