(The following editorial appeared in Friday's Los Angeles Times:
When Israel's Ehud Barak was elected 11 months ago he promised to be ''the prime minister of everybody.'' In pursuit of that inclusiveness he put together an inherently fractious multi-party government, ranging from secularists on the left to the ultra-Orthodox on the right. This week Barak was humiliated when three of his Knesset coalition partners voted to give preliminary approval to a bill calling for early elections -- in effect a vote to topple the government. With crucial Israeli-Palestinian peace talks scheduled to resume near Washington next week, this threat to Barak's authority could not have come at a worse time.
Sunday could see a showdown. Barak said after the vote that the Cabinet ministers who supported early elections ''had ostensibly fired themselves,'' hinting that he might move to remake his government even at the cost of shrinking his comfortable parliamentary majority. As one Barak loyalist put it, ''a situation in which members sit simultaneously in the government and in the opposition'' is impossible to sustain. True, but no cost-free way to remedy that situation is in sight.
Among the defecting parties was Shas, which provides one-fourth of Barak's 68-52 parliamentary majority. Shas favors the peace process, unlike the settler-supported National Religious Party and the Russian-immigrant-based Yisrael B'Aliya, the other coalition partners that voted for early elections. Shas' key interest is obtaining vastly more in government subsidies for its bankrupt religious schools, part of a larger social welfare system that secures its political base in Israel's Sephardic community. Barak has balked at higher funding for the schools and now faces a threatened revolt from his secular supporters if he gives in.
It's a mess, teetering on the edge of crisis. But in Israel, in the useful reminder from Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, ''a crisis is just the beginning of a negotiation.'' Everyone recognizes that a weakened government facing early elections would be in no position to move forward with the peace talks. That would suit those Israelis and Arabs who equate making compromises for peace with courting national disaster. But a majority of Israelis still back efforts at accommodation with the Palestinians. That's why it's likely that Barak will cut a new deal with Shas, boosting its school subsidies in exchange for its promise to remain loyal to his policies.
If there's going to be a deal it's best that it come quickly, so that Barak can focus on the critical negotiations that are to resume next week. He may be forced to pay a steep price to keep his parliamentary majority more or less intact. But the cost of the alternative -- effectively freezing the peace talks while Israel plods its way through yet another political stalemate -- would be heavier still.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.