- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999

Imagine the day when the Democrats threaten to give up their seats in the House because of lack of funding for failing schools. Sound absurd? Monday, Israel's second largest party, the ultra-orthodox Shas, said it would do just that. If it removes its 17 seats from the parliament though, it will leave Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak with a minority government, jeopardizing the peace process with the Syrians just as it has begun.
The Shas' impeccable timing left the prime minister scrambling: If the Shas ministers quit, Mr. Barak's divided government will be on even shakier ground as it goes into peace talks with Syria in West Virginia Monday. At home, the parliament is to vote on the new budget on Thursday, and if the ultra-orthodox party votes against it, it is not likely to pass.
In addition, even if Mr. Barak is able to garner support from Arab parties and a Jewish faction outside the coalition before the Syrian negotiations, he needs the party's backing. Shas, which is supported by Sephardic Jews who come from Arab states, has backed peace with the Arabs. With division in the Israeli government over Syria's demands it wants all of the Golan Heights territory captured by Israel in 1967 Mr. Barak needs all the support he can get.
As unlikely as it is that Shas will actually follow through with its threat to quit, the threat calls to the fore a major policy question: Must the peace process be threatened by every unresolved domestic issue? Though Mr. Barak has already formed his "national disunity government" a coalition of seven very antithetical parties he cannot become distracted by party politics and politically correct behavior at this point in the venture. He must remember his most important objective is to protect Israeli security, and the Golan Heights, with its high plateau and early warning systems, has until now done just that.
Fortunately, the Shas needs the government as much as the government needs it. Without its seats in the Knesset, it would be much harder to get the millions it says it needs. The Israeli prime minister had not provided the millions Shas demanded for its crumbling schools, so he would have to figure out a way to come up with the cash or else, the party said. When this page went to press, a solution for meeting the funding demands for health, welfare and the educational system looked promising. Ministry officials said $12.2 of the Shas education debt would be paid by the government, the Associated Press reported, and negotiations for smaller issues were still in process.
No matter what Shas decides to do this week, the parliament and the prime minister cannot forget the bigger picture at this important crossroads. Syria has more than 4,000 tanks and 1,000 missiles, and if the Golan Heights is given to Syria, Israel's main line of defense will be taken away. That could leave no schools to fund, no parties to squabble, and no peace to ensure. Mr. Barak and his nation must do everything they can to make sure Israel never sees that day.

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