GLOBE & MAIL
Wednesday, August 30, 2000
By Matthew Kalman
Jerusalem -- Prime Minister Ehud Barak's sweeping plans for religious and civic reforms have supporters and critics wondering whether he is launching a true crusade to repair Israel's splintered society -- or simply embarking on a populist campaign to win the next election.
Less than 10 days ago, Mr. Barak stunned his country by announcing a new "civic agenda" for Israeli society. He wants to draw up a written constitution; end the Orthodox Jewish monopoly on marriages and burials; make national service compulsory for all citizens, including Arab-Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews who are currently exempt; and dismantle the Ministry of Religion and its local religious councils.
Secular Israelis who worry about the growing strength of the Orthodox religious establishment hail the plan as a "secular revolution" and as a turning point in Israeli history.
But religious leaders accuse the Prime Minister of blatant electioneering in the wake of the collapse of his Labour Party's coalition government in June. Many subscribe to the view that the new plan was hatched solely to solve Mr. Barak's political woes.
"This whole constitution proposal by Barak is a bluff," said Moshe Gafni, an MP for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, which once supported Mr. Barak. "Everyone knows that if either we or Shas [another religious party] would call Barak tonight and offer to join the government, he would call off this whole program."
But Mr. Gafni also cautions that if Mr. Barak is serious in his plan, there could be trouble ahead.
"The question is whether the Prime Minister is leading a process that will change the state of Israel to a non-Jewish state," he said. "If this indeed true, we are talking about a world war."
The most perplexing question concerns Mr. Barak's timing and motivation. He has been trailing badly in opinion polls since his coalition collapsed, and has been saved from outright defeat only by the disarray of his opponents and the fact that the Knesset (parliament) is in recess until October.
Some observers suggest he is trying to deflect attention from the shaky state of peace talks with the Palestinians by focusing instead on sweeping domestic change, even though he has the support of only 42 MPs in the 120-seat Knesset.
"I can't imagine a worse time than this to draft a constitution," said Professor Avi Ravitsky, an expert on Jewish philosophy and a Barak supporter who declined an invitation to join the government.
"In a society which is so divided, it is not right to legislate a constitution with a slim majority -- which will just be overturned by the next government with its slim majority."
Others suggest Mr. Barak is merely trying to exert pressure on the religious parties, among them his former coalition allies, to support his peace initiatives by showing them what could happen to their power base if they remain outside the government.
The influential Maariv newspaper suggested the Prime Minister's new agenda is not quite as billed. "If it was clear that Ehud Barak and his government would unfurl the flag of the civil revolution not just in word but deed, then it would have to be welcomed," the paper argued.
Whatever his motive, Mr. Barak is forcing his country to consider key issues that have been largely ignored in favour of the peace process and the fight against terrorism.
As Avraham Burg, Speaker of the Knesset, put it: "There is a need for a new Zionist narrative not based on a shared external enemy or the ideology of settlement, but a social revolution that will resurrect the Labour Party and the Israeli people."
Mr. Barak's agenda also includes questions of pressing concern to Israel's one-million-strong community of Russian immigrants, who make up about 20 per cent of the electorate and have been tagged by experts as the key swing voters in the past five elections, including the one last year that brought Mr. Barak to office.
For example, many Russian immigrants are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria, which means they cannot marry or be buried the way they want in Israel, which does not have civil marriages or funerals. The problem was intensified because the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for such personal matters, was controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party until last year.
Yisrael b'Aliyah, a Russian immigrant party headed by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, made opposition to Shas the basis of its election campaign last year, reflecting the widespread Russian dislike for the political and religious hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox.
The Russian community was dismayed when Mr. Barak took Shas into his coalition as the second-largest party in the government. But after a year of coalition crises and scandals, fuelled largely by the refusal of Shas to have its schools adhere to financing regulations, Mr. Barak seems to have washed his hands of the party.