Test for the Left

In recent years Shas has been very careful not to make excessive demands regarding religious coercion. Now it appears to have shed all restraint.

"It's a good thing the winter session is nearing its end," a senior Labor Party member said last week, referring to Shas' shopping spree and the closeout sale on secular rights that his party and Kadima are holding. An astonishing situation has been created in the Knesset in which Shas is being paid for neither years nor months in the coalition, but weeks. Every week begins with pondering what new damage the party will bring. The winter recess is brief and only begins in about a month, but it will still put the brakes on the big pandering campaign for a few weeks.

In the run-up to 2008, Shas chalked up two impressive achievements: The Religious Affairs Ministry was reestablished, and the Nahari Law regulations were published, enabling local authorities to channel funds to ultra-Orthodox schools. That seemed to ensure that Shas would remain in the coalition at least until the peace talks took a concrete turn. But it turned out that Shas prefers to view this merely as a down payment. Last week, MK Nissim Zeev's bill outlawing abortions from the sixth month of pregnancy came close to being passed. Shas also got another half billion shekels for yeshivas, and demands to chair a senior Knesset committee.

One key item on this shopping list is the Internet censorship legislation. MK Alex Miller of Yisrael Beiteinu put together a bill that would obligate Internet service providers to give subscribers access to programs for blocking unwanted content. But Shas is not willing to compromise by leaving it up to parents to decide. It insists that Big Brother, Communications Minister Ariel Attias, be the one to decide for us which sites we may enter.

Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog of Labor retracted the backing he had given to the Rabbinic Courts Bill, but that does not mean the law will not arrive in a new incarnation.

Shas has also increased pressure to raise stipends for large families. Cutting these allowances was one of the secular public's greatest accomplishments in recent years. Only six years ago, during the merry days of the Halpert Law, the stipend from the fifth child onward was NIS 850, five times more than the stipend for one child (NIS 170). In that discriminatory situation the allowances became in practice discrete allocations to the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, who are practically the only ones with such large families. A situation arose in which a non-Haredi who decided to bring a child into the world decided to pay for that child, and whenever a Haredi decided to bring a child into the world he essentially decided that a non-Haredi would cover the costs.

Today the state benefit from the fourth child onward is NIS 337 - 40 percent of the stipend at its height - compared with NIS 152 for a first and second child. More importantly, since child benefits were dramatically cut in June 2003, some 650,000 children have been born, each entitling the family to just NIS 152, regardless of his or her birth order in the family. It's starting to seem like equality. That accomplishment must not be lost.

In recent years Shas has been very careful not to make excessive demands regarding religious coercion. Now it appears to have shed all restraint. Maybe Eli Yishai is just so afraid of being in a government leading a peace process that there is nothing he won't do to dismantle it. Hovering over all this is Shas' absurd demand that negotiations be held without talking about Jerusalem. We have grown so accustomed to hearing this oxymoron that we sometimes forget it's kind of like playing soccer without goals. One may well ask when Shas will be liberated from the sense of inferiority that causes it to prefer being a junior partner in a right-Haredi government than a senior partner in a centrist one.

It is very hard to view the pseudo-negotiations the coalition is conducting as reason for the left to pamper the prime minister. But if there is one thing Israel needs even less than elections, it is a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. The decisions on whether to launch an incursion into Gaza or take offensive action in Iran should be left in the hands of a hesitant centrist government, not a fervid right-wing government. The same goes for the decisions on construction in the settlements.

I therefore call on all candidates for the Meretz party's leadership to announce that if Shas resigns from the coalition, they will provide a safety net for the government. You cannot expect the Arab parties to support this government, but you can certainly expect them to pledge that they will abstain on crucial votes. Presumably, only the announcement of Meretz's safety net would be enough to rein in Shas and halt the liquidation sale on secular rights - especially if it is accompanied by a declaration that Meretz's asking price will be passage of a civil-union law. This is a classic case of a leadership needing to hold its nose and dive in. If the left's leaders fail this test, we will all pay the price.