- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

TEL AVIV — A long-running dispute over the role of religion in politics is obstructing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attempt to establish a new ruling coalition that will support his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon is negotiating with the center-left Labor Party, but will be hard-pressed to form a stable “unity” government unless he can coax two bitter rivals — the staunchly secular Shinui party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party — to sit around the same Cabinet table.

With his coalition commanding 59 of the 120 seats in parliament, Mr. Sharon wants to widen his government in anticipation that the pro-settler National Religious Party will withdraw once he starts implementing his initiative to evacuate 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Sharon’s point man on the plan, Giora Eiland, told the Israeli parliament yesterday that he plans to evacuate all the Gaza Strip settlers by September 2005 — three months earlier than had been expected.

But talks on a national unity coalition have run up against strong opposition within Mr. Sharon’s own Likud Party, in which some members have warned Mr. Sharon against forming a coalition without at least one religious party.

“His own party is insisting he have a religious fig leaf,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political-science professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

“The Likud historically on the issue of religion and state has been a traditional party. The mass support of the Likud comes not from the Tel Aviv ultra-secular type, but are more traditional and have a respect for Judaism.”

That means Mr. Sharon needs either the United Torah Judaism or the National Religious Party to complete his coalition. But he also needs the support of Shinui, which already sits in the government.

In the last election, Shinui became the third-largest parliamentary bloc by promising angry secular Jews that it would not participate in any government including an ultra-Orthodox party.

On Tuesday, Shinui leader Yosef Lapid backed away from that pledge, saying the party would join a coalition with United Torah Judaism in order to support the disengagement.

“There are times when you have to give up your ego, because there are national interests that are more important than narrow, party-based political issues,” he said.

But even then, he insisted that the ultra-Orthodox party — although it could be part of a coalition — should not be given a seat in the Cabinet. Mr. Sharon rejected that condition.

Mr. Lapid has built his political career on fiery denunciations of ultra-Orthodox politicians and rabbis. The party’s main platform promise is to roll back religious laws such as draft exemptions for seminary students and a ban on civil marriages.

Orthodox Jews are fervent opponents of the Gaza Strip withdrawal, even though the theology of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties is not linked to controlling all of the biblical land of Israel.

“In principle, we favor concessions for peace,” said Yisrael Eichler, a parliament member from United Torah Judaism, suggesting the party could support the Gaza Strip withdrawal. “But there’s still a question of whether this is for peace or for the purposes of foreign policy.”

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