Israel: Can A "Secular Revolution" Save The Peace Process?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is working overtime--and against the odds--to reach a peace deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. That's why the two leaders were expected to meet with President Bill Clinton in the wings of the U.N. Millennium summit in New York on Sept. 6. But Barak's political survival is likely to hinge on a battle he is waging at home to win the hearts, minds, and--most important--votes of 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Those voters, 18% of the Israeli electorate, will hold the key to national elections that could be called as early as November. After only 14 months in power, Barak's coalition government collapsed in July in the wake of peace talks with Arafat called by Clinton at Camp David. The defection--in particular, the desertion by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which holds 17 Knesset seats--cost Barak his parliamentary majority. Now, when the Knesset returns to work in late October, Barak will likely face a no-confidence vote that could force him to call new elections. If he were to lose the election before hammering out a deal with Arafat, it would mean the suspension of the peace process--for the next six months and probably longer. Barak has already said he will call elections if he cuts a peace deal with the Palestinians.

This is where the Russian vote comes in. On Aug. 20, Barak threw down the gauntlet to religious parties such as Shas by launching a campaign for a "secular revolution." His proposals are a direct appeal to the Russian immigrants, who now number more than the ultra-Orthodox voters. The Russians have encountered difficulties obtaining marriage licenses or getting relatives buried because the Orthodox Establishment does not recognize them as Jews.

Barak is proposing far-reaching reforms. He wants to extend compulsory military service to religious students, who were previously exempted. He wants to introduce, for the first time, civil-marriage ceremonies. Barak is even calling for Israel to write and approve its first constitution so that the civil reforms have a strong legal framework. And on Sept. 3, the Prime Minister decided to disband the Religious Affairs Ministry, which oversees services such as marriage, divorce, and funerals and enforces strict rules regarding kosher food.

These issues are important to Russian voters, who care far more about secular reforms than about the peace process. But Barak is betting that he can use secular reforms to get Russians to vote for him in new elections, even if they oppose any peace agreement brokered between now and then. "The ways these issues [of civil reform] are handled will sway the vote of the Russians," says Joseph "Tommy" Lapid, leader of the Shinui party, which has led the fight against the ultra-Orthodox community.

BOLD GAMBLE. One challenge for Barak is that Israel's Russian community often remains undecided until the last minute. Still, observes Knesset member Natan Sharansky, leader of the immigrant Israel B'Aliya party, "no one has won an election in the past decade without the majority support of the Russian immigrants." Sharansky broke with Barak over his decision to go to Camp David but sees secular reforms as the only way to win over Russian immigrants.

Barak is making a bold gamble. Some would say it's a desperate, last-ditch move: Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a probable contender, has closed the gap with Barak in the polls. But Israel's most-decorated soldier seems bent on doing all he can to secure a peace agreement with Arafat. The Palestinian leader had planned to declare Palestine an independent state on Sept. 13. Now he is expected to push the deadline to Nov. 15. That would be a welcome breather--but for Israel's embattled Prime Minister, the endgame is nearing.

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