As the Labor Party reaffirmed its intention to stay out of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new government, the chairman of the secular Shinui Party spoke of joining: and for the first time softened his demand that government handouts end for fervently Orthodox men who don't work.
"You have to do it gradually," Shinui leader Tommy Lapid told The Jewish Week. "We don't want to cause unnecessary suffering to large families. But people who are able-bodied men should go and work.
"American Orthodox men are working and praying, too. Only in Israel are men exempt from work. The rest of the population objects to it; it is unjust. Why should the rest of the population support those who don't work?"
Shinui won 15 seats (up from six) in the 120-member Knesset in last month's election because of just such a message, Lapid said. He added that Shinui's strength, coming in third just behind Labor's 19 seats, was a surprise to many, including himself.
"It was partly a vote of protest" against the coercion of the ultra-religious parties, he said.
Shinui negotiators are expected to begin real negotiations with Likud about joining its government in coming weeks. Should it join, Lapid said he wants Shinui to have the top cabinet ministries of justice, finance and interior, and possibly environment.
Although he spoke of compromise on the issue of government handouts, Lapid, 71, reaffirmed his party's other positions.
"We want conscription of yeshiva bochers [students] (they should not be exempt from army duty) and we want to have civil marriage, public traffic on the Sabbath and we should get rid of many discriminatory laws," he said. "There is a lot to do to have an open-minded liberal society, some of which you can accomplish immediately."
Lapid said he is not a member of any Jewish movement but he "strongly" supports the Reform and Conservative movements' "demand that they should enjoy equal rights in Israel," he asserted. "We are the only country in the world where rabbis do not have equal rights. ... There is no place for discrimination against the Conservative or Reform."
Support From Reform
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement's ARZA-World Union, North America, said Lapid and his party are a "strong ally."
"We see the make-up of Israel in similar ways, that is an Israeli government and Israeli laws that are non-discriminatory," he explained. "We would like to see religious life free of as much religious coercion as possible, and as much freedom in Israeli society as possible."
Rabbi Hirsch said his organization and Shinui have been partners for the last 10 years in the World Zionist Organization, which sets the ideological agenda for the Israel-diaspora relationship and along with the Jewish Agency helps determine how $300 million in Jewish philanthropic money is spent in Israel.
"He was always supportive of our efforts to influence the direction of the WZO and the Jewish Agency," Rabbi Hirsch said. "Despite other parties leaving our coalition in the WZO, Shinui stuck with us all these years."
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, said his movement has not had a close relationship with Shinui but that the two have common interests and concerns, such as the desire for equality.
Rabbi Epstein said that although his movement would have no problem with Lapid's call for civil marriages in Israel, Lapid's desire that public transportation operate on the Sabbath would present a problem if it mean having buses run in Orthodox enclaves like the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
"We want to preserve a religious nature for those who want it," he said. "I would want a religious sensitivity in the state. I would hate for Israel to be just another secular state."
Rabbi Epstein said he plans to be in Israel later this month and hopes to meet with Lapid. One of the issues Rabbi Epstein may raise is whether Shinui would favor increased government money to expand the so-called conversion institutes in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis participate. Asked about it, Lapid told The Jewish Week that all potential converts "should be welcomed and there should be no difficulties."
"There should be no differences between congregations in Israel [in terms of government funding]," he added.
Forming A Government
Regarding Sharon's new government, Israeli President Moshe Katzav is expected to formally ask Sharon to form a government after his Likud Party won 38 seats in the Knesset, double the number of its nearest rival, Labor.
Natan Sharansky said this week that he would want a cabinet position in return for his Israel B'Aliyah Party joining Sharon's government with its two seats. Sharansky currently holds the housing ministry, but he said he would not insist on retaining that portfolio.
Sharon has 42 days to assemble a government and many analysts believe he will take his time.
"He has six weeks, which will take us into mid-March," said Eran Lerman, director of the Israel and Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee. "With the Kuwaitis closing their border [with Iraq] on Feb. 15, you can guess what is happening. If there is a war with Iraq, Labor could join" Sharon's government.
And in a state of emergency, Lerman said, Shinui might also be persuaded to join and sit in a government with the ultra-Orthodox parties that have fought for the government handouts Shinui opposes.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, recalled that Menachem Begin and his Herut Party joined a national unity government just before the Six Day War in 1967 and that he stayed there for three years.
But Opher Pines-Paz, secretary general of the Labor Party, flatly ruled out such a scenario following a meeting Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna had with Sharon Monday.
"If there is a war with Iraq, the Americans are going to fight it and we will stand united as a country," he told The Jewish Week. "But we don't need a unity government for that. We will serve the public in the opposition and we will be a very responsible opposition."
In his meeting with Mitzna, Pines-Paz said Sharon was "very stubborn and spoke only about his way. He was not even willing to consider evacuating even the smallest settlements in the Gaza Strip. We don't know how that position comes together with the Bush roadmap."
He was referring to the peace proposal of President George W. Bush to create a Palestinian state without defined borders in the West Bank and Gaza by the end of this year and a state with fixed borders in 2005.
Despite their protestations, Steinberg said he would not rule out Labor again joining a Sharon government even though it is more likely Shinui will join. He said there are internal pressures on Mitzna to "cut a deal so that Labor is not portrayed as the party that is preventing national unity and giving up the ability to play a role during a time of economic and security crises."
Recent figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics found that tourism, one of the pillars of Israel's economy, went into a tailspin when Palestinian violence erupted on Sept. 28, 2000. That year, the number of tourists hit a record of 2.4 million. Last year, there were only 862,300: the lowest figure in 20 years. And with the Israeli economy described as being the worst in 50 years, the unemployment rate at 10.4 percent is expected to rise to 12 percent later in the year.
Many analysts and Sharon himself don't believe the economy will improve until the crisis with the Palestinians is resolved.
But for an increasing number of Palestinians, there is a belief that time is on their side, according to Asher Susser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.
He explained that Israel is unable to use its military power against the Palestinians and that all they have to do is wait until they outnumber Israeli Jews.
"The Palestinians see time and history on their side," he told a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Jan. 30. "It's working for them and there is precious little Israel can do about it."
Susser said "great decisions" must be made in three to five years.
"I believe Sharon knows this ... [and] has come around to accepting the notion of a two-state solution," he said, adding that this is one reason Sharon is so keen on having a unity government with Labor at his side.
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