Barak comes under attack for 'dealing with snakes'

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The Independent Online

A political furore gripped Israel yesterday after the spiritual leader of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party, described Palestinians as "snakes" whom God regrets creating, and said that the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, had "no sense" because he was trying to make peace with them.

A political furore gripped Israel yesterday after the spiritual leader of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party, described Palestinians as "snakes" whom God regrets creating, and said that the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, had "no sense" because he was trying to make peace with them.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef coupled the insult with a controversial new outburst about the Holocaust, claiming that Europe's murdered Jews were killed because they were reincarnations of sinners from previous generations.

The remarks by the notoriously outspoken rabbi were significant because Shas is Israel's third largest party in the Knesset, and Mr Barak appears dependent on its support to rebuild his shattered government coalition.

The rabbi's words, made during his weekly Saturday sermon at a Jerusalem synagogue, are yet another setback for the struggling Mr Barak, whose support has shrunk to only 40 members of the 120-strong parliament, and whom the house humiliated last week by rejecting his candidate for president, the former premier Shimon Peres.

The rabbi's attack on the Palestinians undermines his party's claims to support peace, and raises doubts over whether Yasser Arafat and Mr Barak can do a deal if Shas is part of Israel's government.

It drew a swift response from the Palestinians. "The statements of this idiot and racist are a disgrace for every Israeli," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Information Minister.

The rabbi accompanied his rabble-rousing by claiming that the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust were reincarnated souls who "transgressed and did all sorts of things which should not be done". His comments reflect a long-standing theological debate in the ultra-Orthodox movement over why God did not intervene during the Holocaust. But the issue is highly sensitive, guaranteed to set off a controversy, even though Rabbi Yosef did add that the Nazis were "evil".

Ultra-Orthodox radio stations which regularly broadcast the rabbi's sermons were inundated by protest calls. The office of Mr Barak - whose maternal grandparents died in a Nazi concentration camp - issued a statement saying that the cleric's words did "not befit a rabbi of his stature" and "could harm the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust ... and the feelings of the entire nation".

An Israeli Arab parliamentarian, Ahmed Tibi, said his party will ask Israel's attorney-general to consider pressing charges. The head of the secular Shinui party, Tommy Lapid - a Holocaust survivor - said he had not heard such a terrible pronouncement from a Jewish leader since the founding of Israel. He described Rabbi Yosef's words as "slander from an old fool who regretfully is the spiritual leader of a large community in Israel".

The rabbi, who controls 17 seats in the Knesset, professes to relatively moderate policies, and purports to support the return of Arab lands if it saves Jewish lives, but this isnot matched by his fiery rhetoric. Secular Israelis tend to see him as a wheeler-dealer who has exploited his party's power-brokering status to extort as much possible from the government.

Rabbi Yosef ordered Shas to quit Mr Barak's coalition last month, a day before he set off for the Camp David summit, because he feared the prime minister would give too much to the Palestinians. With the Knesset in recess until late October, Mr Barak has three months to rebuild his government or secure a deal with Mr Arafat and call elections. The signs are that he will have to persuade Shas back into the fold.

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