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Wednesday, June 14, 2000, updated at 09:47(GMT+8)

Israeli Shas Party Quits Coalition

Israel's ultra-orthodox religious Shas party, which holds 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), announced Tuesday it will quit the coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The party's policy-making Council of Torah Sages made the decision after an urgent meeting Tuesday morning and the decision was final, party leader Eli Yishai said in a televised interview.

Yishai, who holds the Labor and Social Affairs portfolio, also announced the negotiations between Shas and Barak's One Israel party aiming to resolve the coalition crisis had come to an end.

Earlier, the sages panel's secretary Rafael Pinhasif said "The Council of Torah Sages has told the Shas ministers and its deputies to submit resignation letters in the upcoming cabinet meeting and to quit the coalition."

The cabinet is scheduled to convene on Sunday, but there are reports that the resignation will take affect in 48 hours. It is not clear whether the party will back down at the last minute this time as it had done several times before.

Tommy Lapid, leader of the secular Shinui Party, had already predicted that Tuesday's announcement of a planned party resignation by Shas is another political ploy to raise the price it will cost Barak to keep Shas on board.

If carried out, the quitting will make the Barak administration, currently having a 68-52 majority in Israel's 15th Knesset, shrink to a 51-seat minority government.

Moreover, Yisrael Ba'aliya and National Religious Party (NRP), Shas' two right-wing fellows in the coalition, may follow suit, further reducing Barak's control in the Knesset to 42 seats and declaring the de facto death of Barak's 11-month-old coalition. The crisis will surely hamper Barak's peace efforts for reaching peace deals with the Palestinians and Syrians, as all such agreements should wait for parliamentary approval.

All the three parties, which Barak included in his coalition last July to broaden the support base for peace talks with Arab countries, voted along the oppositions last Wednesday in a preliminary reading in favor of a bill calling for early elections.

The major contention point between Shas and Barak is Shas' demands for millions of additional dollars to save its corrupt and almost-bankrupt educational network, which is believed by many analysts as the real drive behind the party's rebellious acts.

Meanwhile, Yisrael Ba'aliya and NRP are against making concessions to the Palestinians in the peace talks.

The talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, which just resumed Tuesday in the United States, are intended to reach a framework agreement and a final accord by September on final-status issues, such as the fate of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements, border, security and water.

Israel is also hoping to reopen the talks with Syria, which broke off early January due to Syria's insistence that Israel pledge to the return of the Golan Heights it seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Barak is now left with two options to cope with the situation. The first option is to form a new government without the religious parties.

The six-seat secular Shinui party, the two-seat Democratic List and the two-seat Am Ehad (One Nation) will be major candidates to fill the government vacuum left by Shas.

Such a government will be a 52-seat minority, whose survival depends on the support from 10 Knesset members of Israeli Arab parties outside the coalition.

Barak can also try to persuade the major opposition Likud, who holds 19 seats in the Knesset, to participate in a national unity government.

A Gallup poll published on Tuesday showed that the majority of Israelis (57.6 percent) prefer such a national unity government with Likud over a coalition with the religious parties.

The poll has also revealed that 46.5 percent interviewees favor a narrow coalition with Shinui, Democratic List and Am Ehad, while 39.5 percent want to see a broad-based coalition with Shas, Yisrael Ba'aliya, and NRP.

In This Section

Israel's ultra-orthodox religious Shas party, which holds 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), announced Tuesday it will quit the coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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