Sharon's Big Chance

Without intending it, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon now has a golden opportunity to make a historic move. In the realm of security and foreign policy he has nothing new to offer. But good fortune has now come Sharon's way in the form of an opportunity to switch horses and mount the civil steed.

Without intending it, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon now has a golden opportunity to make a historic move. In the realm of security and foreign policy he has nothing new to offer. His only goal is to reduce the number and intensity of terrorist attacks to a bare minimum in order to bring a little quiet to the nation of Israel and not to be considered a resounding security failure.

Sharon has no interest in entering into any form of negotiations with the Palestinians, as this would involve domestic political risks and significant concessions, and he is unwilling to forgo any settlements at this time - including the small, isolated settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. Another goal of the prime minister is to maintain good relations with the United States, and to achieve that he is ready to pay all the lip service that's needed, even to pass himself off at the Likud Central Committee as one who supports the establishment of a Palestinian state - empty words that only a naive American such as Secretary of State Colin Powell was ready to take at face value and even quote admiringly.

But good fortune has now come Sharon's way in the form of an opportunity to switch horses and mount the civil steed, which has been waiting for years in the corral for an experienced rider to perform wonders on its back; consider the enthusiasm with which the public greeted the dismissal of the Shas party cabinet ministers.

Now that the Shas ministers are formally out of the government, Sharon should also switch advisers. He should stop listening to Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, who never tires of declaring that the Likud cannot govern without Shas. The truth is the exact opposite. The ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) are not the natural allies of the Likud, they are its bitterest adversaries. Shas drew its new voters from the pool of Likud supporters, and it will continue doing so, even under the new-old electoral system, if it gets the funding it wants. Therefore, Sharon now has to change direction and form a government without the Haredim, but with Labor, the National Religious Party, Shinui, Yisrael b'Aliyah and Yisrael Beiteinu. A government of that composition will let a little light into our gray reality, the light of a civic revolution.

The first step the government should take is to bring about conscription of all Haredim. That would be greeted with wild applause by the overwhelming majority of the public, which is no longer willing to see its sons being killed and wounded while the sons of the Haredim laugh at them from inside their yeshivas. Sharon has to understand that the promise of exemption from army service is a major drawing card of Shas and United Torah Judaism. After all, what is more important than life? The secular public will also be grateful for a reduction of reserve duty, because one additional battalion of Haredim means a saving of 12 reserve battalions in a year.

The second step is in the realm of education: Cessation of funding for the independent Haredi education networks. The absurd situation now is that taxpayers' money is underwriting networks that educate their students not to work. Science, mathematics and English aren't taught in the Haredi schools, so what they offer is education for ignorance. The goal is to ensure the students will never be able to enter modern, well-paid professions and will remain forever dependent on money that originates in the state budget, for which the Shas MKs alone will hold the key. The time has also come to put an end to the situation in which taxpayers' money makes it possible for Shas to provide a long school day - including transportation, hot meals and small classes - while pupils in the state education system do not enjoy these advantages.

The third step will be a particularly acute cut in all the vast funds that reach the yeshivas and the kollels (yeshivas for married men), which are growing at a worrying rate. There are no tuition fees in these institutions; on the contrary, those who attend them get living expenses, a guaranteed income and all manner of discounts - at the expense of the state budget - while university students are forced to pay tuition, work for their living and do reserve duty. Can there be anything more absurd than this state of affairs? If the yeshivas' budgets are cut, they will be compelled to shrink to a reasonable size, on top of which the Haredim will join the labor market and the state will save billions of shekels.

The new cabinet ministers who will be appointed in place of those from Shas should take a fine-tooth comb to their ministries - labor and welfare, interior, health, and religious affairs - where they will find that it's possible to save many billions of shekels that until now have been channeled to all manner of religious institutions and to all kinds of new kashrut inspectors - in the hospitals, for example. The Religious Affairs Ministry can be abolished altogether, and with it the hundreds of religious councils all over the country. The available money can be invested in infrastructures, education, vocational training, encouraging growth, lowering unemployment and introducing a long school day. That is the economic-social revolution that is so badly needed now.

Sharon can throw down the gauntlet and foment that revolution. He doesn't even dream of how much the public yearns for it. He cannot even guess what a huge wave of popularity will sweep over him, because the nation (the great majority of it) has long been yearning for this great civil revolution.