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Cabinet Truce Ends Political Crisis in Israel


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, ending a three-week political crisis that had almost paralyzed the Israeli government, persuaded the feuding factions within his Cabinet on Sunday to accept a truce holding the coalition together but leaving the underlying dispute unresolved.

Under the agreement, the leader of the Cabinet's leftist party yielded the Education Ministry to a colleague and became minister of communications, science and technology in response to demands from the coalition's religious party that, as a militant secularist, she be removed from such a sensitive position.

Rabin, in return, established a ministerial committee to oversee Israel's negotiations with its Arab neighbors--an area that, until now, has been virtually his alone.

Although the deal ensured the continuation of the current center-left government--a partnership linking Rabin's Labor Party, the leftist Meretz Bloc and Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party--the coalition remains at odds internally, vulnerable to future Shas demands and psychologically wrung-out.

"I am happy the crisis is over," said Shulamit Aloni, the Meretz leader, who gave up her cherished education portfolio to satisfy Shas' demands. "As to how it ended, I can't say that my heart leaped with joy. But we are not a love story--we're a government.

"The government has to carry out policy," Aloni continued, "and if this government can make progress in the peace talks . . . I think this is desirable."

The choice for Meretz had come down to remaining in the Rabin government to preserve its essential center-left character and commitment to the peace talks or pulling out and watching Rabin try to build a new center-right coalition that would take a far harsher line in negotiations with the Arabs.

In withdrawing Aloni from the Education Ministry, a political prize in Israel, Meretz made clear that it was putting its commitment to peace above its advocacy of secularism.

The three-week crisis had already led Israel to take a far harder stance in negotiations with the Palestinians, according to Palestinian delegates, as Rabin positioned himself to bring into the coalition other religious or even rightist parties if necessary.

The endless discussions with Meretz, Shas and his own Labor Party--the final agreement was reached only late Sunday night at a special Cabinet meeting--had already diverted Rabin from the Arab-Israeli talks, according to government officials.

"The prime minister has been driven crazy by all this," one aide said. "He is spending more time negotiating with Meretz and Shas than he is with the Palestinians or the Syrians."

Rabin had said his government would be weakened and the Middle East peace talks disrupted if Shas carried out its threat to quit the Cabinet. Although the government might have survived immediate opposition challenges with the support of Arab and pro-Communist parties, Rabin wants as broad a consensus as possible to secure parliamentary approval for any peace accords.

The new ministerial committee overseeing the peace talks will include Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a senior Meretz leader, who has called on Rabin to move faster and more boldly in the negotiations and who last week supported proposals for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a way to forge ahead.

"None of the partners in the coalition has any motivation to break it up, and all want to find a way out of this problem," Gad Ben-Ari, Rabin's spokesman, said before the Cabinet meeting.

The crisis erupted with the threatened resignation May 9 of Interior Minister Arye Deri, the Shas leader, who said Aloni had gone too far in offending religious sensibilities by eating non-kosher food, joking about Israel's chief rabbis as "two popes" and calling for the Bible to be taught in Israeli schools not as history and science but as religion.

Although he had emerged more a winner in the political showdown than Aloni--or Rabin--Deri nevertheless expressed his unhappiness that a Meretz minister, Amnon Rubinstein, one of Israel's most distinguished law professors but as much a secularist as Aloni, will run the Education Ministry.

"We will have to do a lot of work to fix up what happened," Deri said after the Cabinet meeting Sunday night. "I very much hope there will not be another crisis."

The haredi Orthodox who support Shas consider control over education to be vital to their interests in their efforts to bring Israel's secular majority toward their strict observance of Jewish law.

Shas' departure from government would have deprived the coalition of six of its 62 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's Parliament, and left it dependent on five Arab and Communist seats at a time when the rejuvenated opposition Likud Party has been intent on weekly parliamentary challenges. Rabin rejected Meretz suggestions that he lead a minority government.

To move Aloni out of the Education Ministry, Rabin gave her portions of two ministries that had belonged to Cabinet members from his Labor Party.

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