Barak converts to radical secularism

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The Independent Online

Israel's beleaguered Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is preparing to fight an early election on a radically secular platform. All the indications at the weekend were that he had written off the ultra-Orthodox Shas and other religious parties as potential partners in his crumbling coalition.

Israel's beleaguered Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is preparing to fight an early election on a radically secular platform. All the indications at the weekend were that he had written off the ultra-Orthodox Shas and other religious parties as potential partners in his crumbling coalition.

At the same time, Mr Barak is flying a kite for the resumption of high-level peace talks at next month's millennium gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. Although he said yesterday he was waiting for Palestinian "openness" to the ideas floated at Camp David a month ago, Israel is encouraged that Yasser Arafat won little support for his maximalist positions during a post-summit tour of Europe, Asia and Africa.

Mr Barak lived up to his old army reputation for surprising even his own troops. At a meeting of his One Israel ministers on Saturday night, he unveiled a "revolution" designed to appeal to Israel's secular majority. These voters are angered by Shas's descent into the darker recesses of Jewish mysticism, which resulted in an "explanation" that six million Jews died in the Holocaust to expiate sins they had committed in a previous life, one rabbi said.

Mr Barak wants to dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry and give Israel a written constitution that would loosen the grip of the Orthodox establishment on citizens' daily lives. More specifically, he is proposing to introduce civil marriage and cement women's rights into the statute book.

Addressing huge resentment at the exemption of 30,000 yeshiva seminarists from conscription, Mr Barak vowed to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli-Arabs into either military or civilian public service.

The Prime Minister plans to oblige all state-funded schools to teach a curriculum including civics, mathematics and English. Up to now, private ultra-Orthodox schools have enjoyed broad autonomy, although they depended on government subsidies. In the boys' schools, the focus is on intensive study of holy writ to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Mr Barak's eagerness to revive the peace process with the Palestinians and the Syrians is another red rag to the religious parties. The Sephardi Shas and the pro-settler National Religious Party walked out of his coalition overhis stance at Camp David.

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