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Shas Party reminds Barak of its power

Israeli prime minister cuts a deal with ultra-Orthodox party late

The regional climate for making peace with Israel's Arab neighbors has never looked sunnier. At least, that's what the experts here are telling Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

But here at home, Mr. Barak is weathering domestic squalls that could slow his plans for peace deals with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.

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This weeks' flash flood came from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox political party, which threatened to bolt Barak's coalition government if their demands for more funding for their wide network of social and educational institutions were not met. With 17 parliamentary seats, Shas is the biggest party in Barak's coalition next to his own Labor Party. Many of the Shas Party's devoted followers are Jews with Middle Eastern origins and could easily be mobilized to oppose the prime minister's peacemaking efforts.

After intensive negotiations to find a financial formula to keep Shas on board, the party said late Tuesday it was staying in the coalition. But the Shas incident - threatening to leave Barak without a parliamentary majority - serves as a reminder of how Barak's pastiche of political parties could be the most problematic factor in reaching regional peace pacts.

Primed for peace

On the other hand, the region as a whole looks ready for Israeli-Arab reconciliation.

Last week, the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University released their analysis of the Middle East military balance for the year 2000. At a press conference here, political experts and army generals from the center used the moment to outline why now is perhaps the best time in Israel's history to take calculated risks for peace.

"When we talk about taking calculated risks, what we mean is essentially accepting the notion that Israel will not be able to maintain a presence on the Golan," says Shai Feldman, the head of the Jaffe Center, referring to the plateau Israel seized from Syria in 1967, later annexing and settling it with some 17,000 people.

"We have a window of opportunity. It's not going to remain indefinitely open. It will remain an opportunity for a while, but we also see an urgency to seize it," Professor Feldman says.

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The center's analysts concluded that six key factors contribute to Israel's ability to give up its geographic advantages for security guarantees:

*Arab regimes have found no replacement for it the Soviet Union, which once supplied them with arms to counteract American military support for Israel.

*Years of low oil prices (until recently) have left Arab states without surplus funds for a renewed arms race in the region. The only Arab army that has been modernizing since the 1980s is Egypt, with whom Israel has had peace for two decades.

*Sanctions against Iraq, which attacked Israel with Scud missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, remain in place.

*The forces of Islamic extremism have largely been contained in places such as Egypt and Jordan, while Iran has achieved little success in exporting the Islamic revolution.

*Successions in the region, such as in Jordan and Morocco, have gone smoothly.

*Arab states and Iran have not developed alternative missile technology - such as nuclear and chemical weapons - as quickly as some experts had predicted, leaving Israel with unrivaled conventional military superiority.

Faulty logic

More conservative voices in Israel, however, are not convinced. Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, says that the Jaffe Center's correct reading of regional trends brings them to a faulty conclusion.

"The obvious conclusion of this analysis is that Syria is weak, so why pay such a high price? The price is simply too high, and what do we get? The Syrians cannot deliver the Arab world," Professor Inbar says, bucking assessments that an Israeli peace with Damascus will open the door for normalization with most other Arab states.

"To say that in an era of missiles, territory is not important, is a simplistic argument," he adds. As Israel gets closer to being able to "attack a missile before it hits the ground, topography and hills become important. The arguments that are being made are disingenuous."

Jaffe Center analysts say they take still take topography into consideration. But even conventional warfare has changed since the early 1990s, and among its neighbors, only Israel has kept pace.

"Warfare went through quite a radical change through this time framework," says Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom (res.). "There is only one military in the Middle East capable of going through this change, and that is Israel."

But Israel also is ostensibly the only country at the peace table whose public is fully capable of rejecting whatever accord its leaders bring home. During his campaign for prime minister, Barak offered to put a peace deal involving a Golan withdrawal before Israelis in a referendum. The campaign promise became after the Knesset passed legislation earlier this year requiring that Israelis be given a chance to vote on any peace treaty that requires them to withdraw from territory.

And in Barak's drive to nurture public support for a Golan compromise, Shas could continue to make his job difficult. The latest battle was about money: the 100 million shekels ($25 million) Shas wanted in order to bail out its indebted network of religious schools. But more than that, it was also about Shas feeling it did not get the respect it deserved in the budget process. Commentators described a sense of Shas "humiliation" - a hot-button issue for a party that claims the problems of disadvantaged Sephardic Jews here are caused by discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazi elite.

The Shas factor persists

Some speculate that Shas may have created the crisis as a reminder that not only can it leave the coalition, but it can stir up sentiment against the Golan referendum if Barak does not ensure their place as a preferential member of his Cabinet. Just last week, the 90-something spiritual mentor of Shas, Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, paid a visit to the Golan Heights and said it was wrong for Israel to consider relinquishing the land. Though he has far less direct control than the party's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who dictates political decisions to Shas parliamentarians, Kadouri's blessing on a peace deal - or the lack of it - can influence Shas followers.

"Shas can't bring this government down, but they can create a lot of difficulties for Barak in the referendum," says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "He wants them on his side when he moves ahead with the peace."

As good as the regional outlook for peace may be, no Israeli leader will be able to take advantage of it without considerable domestic maneuvering.

"They [Shas] are the gatekeepers for the peace process, and if they won't share the keys, there won't be a peace process," says Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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