Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak announced today that he has sealed a deal with Israel's largest religious party to join a broad coalition government widely expected to reinvigorate the dormant Middle East peace process.
It took the Labor Party leader six weeks of intensive bargaining to gather his partners. The negotiations produced a government with support from 69 members of the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, and the expectation of support from one or two other smaller parties that could bring total strength to 77 votes.
That, plus the likely backing of 10 Arab members, is a much broader base of support than late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin mustered in 1993 when he signed the historic Oslo peace accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It suggested that Barak will have a solid mandate for changes in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and Israel's other Arab neighbors, setting the stage for what many Israelis believe is an opportunity to reach enduring peace agreements.
Barak, who has been conspicuous by his near invisibility throughout the coalition negotiations, left it to his aides to announce the breakthrough today. "It's another step on a long journey to bring Israel unity, hope and change," said Barak spokesman David Ziso.
However, the coalition Barak has cobbled together also includes bitter political enemies whose disputes mirror the divisions of Israeli society -- between old immigrants and new, ultra-Orthodox and resolutely secular Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. That has prompted predictions that Barak will be hard-pressed to keep peace in his government on domestic issues even as he is forging ahead to revive peace talks with the Arab states.
"It does have, one must admit, a scary combination of complete opposites," Hemi Shalev, a columnist for the newspaper Maariv, wrote this week. "He assumes he will be able to tame the many-headed monster which must necessarily be his coalition. . . . Only time will tell how he controls this creature."
Barak, a former military chief of staff and Israel's most highly decorated soldier, is expected to present his government formally to the Knesset by the middle of next week, just ahead of the July 9 deadline. He needed the support of 61 members, just over half the Knesset, to take office. Today, he got it.
The breakthrough involved the Shas party, whose 17 seats in the incoming parliament put it in an exceptionally strong bargaining position. Its leaders are bearded, ultra-Orthodox rabbis and its voters are mainly working-class Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin. Shas's political agenda is almost entirely domestic -- mainly social services and education for its blue-collar constituents.
Many secular Israelis believe Shas is at the vanguard of a movement to construct a theocracy in Israel -- a system like Iran's, an idea many find frightening. But Shas is generally dovish on the peace process, and to Barak that made the party an appealing coalition partner even if some of his secular supporters threatened to mutiny if Shas was included.
Almost since the day after he defeated the Likud party incumbent, Binyamin Netanyahu, in elections May 17, Barak has cajoled, bullied, sweet-talked and bargained with Shas, punctuated at one point by an apparently serious flirtation with the hard-line Likud. The acting Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, said the talks broke down over what to do about the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, and Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.
Having stunned Israelis by increasing its Knesset strength from 10 to 17 seats, Shas felt it could make tough demands on Barak. But Barak also had demands, foremost of which was the resignation of Shas's charismatic leader, Aryeh Deri, who was sentenced to four years in prison for bribery.
Under pressure from Barak, Deri, who remains free pending appeal, quit the Knesset then the Shas leadership, although he appears to wield influence behind the scenes. That set the stage for a deal with Shas, which was desperate to retain considerable government subsidies for its social programs.
In the deal signed today, Shas officials said they received four of the 18 cabinet ministries -- infrastructure, labor, health and religious affairs.
In addition to the ultra-Orthodox, Barak's coalition is expected to include Russian immigrants, religious Zionists, secular liberals and self-styled centrists. The Russians and religious parties, including Shas, were also part of Netanyahu's coalition. But, more wedded to the interests of their constituents than to ideology, they have pledged to support Barak's policies.
Barak is expected to divide the remaining spoils in his government among his own One Israel bloc. He has said he will be his own defense minister, but it remains unclear which of his allies will get such plums as foreign minister or finance minister. And the ministries of public security, justice, agriculture, environment, communications and culture and sport remain undecided.
CAPTION: Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, right, with Labor Party secretary Raanan Cohen, has not said which allies will get jobs of foreign or finance minister.