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Israel: Prime Minister Takes Risks With Broad-Based Government

Prague, 6 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, unveiled a broad-based government today whose diversity initially will be a source of strength but in the long run may prove hard to manage.

Barak is being sworn in as prime minister today in a ceremony at the Israeli Knesset (parliament). Events include election of a house speaker, speeches and the swearing in of Barak's 18-member cabinet. The new prime minister is sure to see all go smoothly because his coalition comprises 75 of the 120 legislators. Another two deputies remain in negotiation with Barak and are expected to enter his coalition soon.

The two strongest pillars of his Knesset majority are his own One Israel coalition, with 26 deputies, and Shas, with 17 deputies. The two parties are a study in contrasts. The first is strongly secular and dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European heritage. The leadership of the second is ultra-religious and its rank-and-file comprises Sephardic Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran.

The two largest parties are joined by five smaller ones which are equally diverse. They include the Russian-immigrant-based Israel B'Aliya and the Centrist Party, which formed prior to the May election around defectors from the outgoing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The rest of the coalition comprises two religious parties, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism, plus the militantly secular Meretz party.

Bernard Susser, a political analyst at Bar Illan University in Tel Aviv, says that the broad base of the coalition will give Barak a strong hand -- at least initially -- in many areas, including advancing the peace process with the Palestinians. Barak has said he will launch fast-track negotiations with the Palestinians on a final peace settlement. Many in his own Labor Party believe talks should end in an independent but demilitarized state for the Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Susser says Barak's coalition will face an immediate test as he attempts to implement the Wye River accord to hand over more West Bank land to the Palestinians. The accord was signed late last year then frozen by Netanyahu's government over objections from hard-line religious parties in his ruling coalition. Those objections eventually helped bring down his government. Susser spoke today with RFE/RL by telephone:

"Recall that Netanyahu's government signed the Wye River agreement but implemented only the first stage of it. The next stage will have to be now with the Barak government, it means giving over a considerable amount of land and I have no doubt that Barak will honor that commitment despite the problems that it may make for him internally."

Susser says Barak is aware of the strains the peace talks will exact on his coalition and has tried to build in enough of a margin of support in his parliamentary majority to survive them.

"[Barak] had a second objective and that was making a coalition that was large enough that even if one or two parties would ... leave, he would still have a majority to rule with. In addition to which he has 11 seats in the parliament which will vote for him if he proceeds with the peace process, 11 Arab members of the Knesset although they are not part of the coalition."

But Susser says there is no way to know whether the coalition can survive all the way to a final status agreement with the Palestinians. He points out that negotiators have yet to begin discussing the toughest issues. They include what to do about Israeli settlements in occupied territories, about Palestinian refugees, and about the final status of Jerusalem -- which both the Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital.

Barak's coalition could face an even bigger test in carrying out another of his stated foreign policy goals: to get Israeli troops out of south Lebanon and revive peace talks with Syria, which have been frozen for three years. Barak has expressed a willingness to return parts of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war, in exchange for Syrian peace guarantees which would include Lebanon, where Damascus is the recognized power broker.

Susser is among analysts saying that making peace with the Syrians at the same time Israel tries to make peace with the Palestinians could place enormous strains on Barak's government.

"Can Israel conduct peace talks on two fronts at once? Can it give back land in the Golan Heights [to Syria] and at the same time make painful compromises [with the Palestinians] in regards to Jerusalem, for example? If it is necessary to surrender territory, to surrender strategic assets, at the same time, Israeli mettle will be sorely tried."

The analyst says that many in Israel feel peace with the Syrians and Palestinians can only be approached in a staggered fashion, meaning that Barak may have to choose which peace he wants first and leave the other for later. That prospect has already alarmed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who in recent days expressed concern that Barak's interest in Syria could cause the Palestinian peace track to stagnate.

Beyond the difficulties of making peace, the strength of Barak's coalition will be sorely tried by a variety of domestic issues. Foremost among those is the growing rift in Israeli society between secular and religious Jews. The secular Jews -- who are in the majority and want Israel to remain a Western-style civil society -- are being increasingly challenged by an outspoken minority of ultra-religious Jews who want a greater place for religious law in regulating public life. Bernard Susser:

"Party politics, particularly between religious and non-religious parties, became very bitter prior to the campaign and the attempt here is to put together a coalition which includes both militant secularist parties, like Meretz, and two ultra-orthodox parties. The great question is can this hold under pressure?"

Susser says Barak will try to begin defusing such pressures by asking both the secular and religious camps to compromise on divisive questions such as current exemptions for religious students from serving in Israel's draft army.

The analyst says the new Israeli premier is also likely to increase government spending on social welfare programs providing services to the disadvantaged Sephardic Jewish community. That community has been radicalized in recent years by his own coalition partner, the ultra-orthodox Shas. But Susser says whether attempts at compromise within Barak's coalition lead to greater cooperation or only result in greater competition between secular and religious Jews remains to be seen. And that, he says, will be a key factor in determining how well and how long Barak can keep his diverse coalition together.