Sabbath row ends Barak's honeymoon

Click to follow
A FARCICAL trial of strength between the orthodox rabbis and the Israeli government over a 250-tonne turbine has brought the political honeymoon of the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, to a screeching halt.

An ultra-orthodox party says it will pull out of Israel's coalition government if part of the giant electric turbine is moved by road to a new power station tonight after the start of the Jewish sabbath. The transport of the turbine by the state-owned Israel Electric Co is the new point of friction in the ongoing battle between secular and ultra-orthodox Jews, which has provoked repeated political crises in the past.

The government insists that the turbine parts, so heavy that the vehicle carrying them can travel at only three miles an hour, must be moved at night during the sabbath because only then are Israel's normally congested roads free of traffic. Officials say any attempt to move the components during the working week would lead to monstrous traffic jams and paralyse the transport system in central Israel.

The convoy carrying the electrical components will leave the Israel Military Industries plant at Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, at eight o'clock tonight and only arrive at the Israel Electric Co on Saturday morning after a 50-mile journey.

"We are quitting," said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz yesterday, when asked what his United Torah Judaism party, with five members in the Knesset, will do if the turbine is transported tonight. "This monster has become a symbol. Does the state of Israel respect the sabbath, does the state of Israel consider the feelings of one million citizens?" The withdrawal of United Torah Judaism will not by itself bring down the government, unless it provokes the departure of Shas, the largest ultra-orthodox party with 17 seats in the 120- member Knesset.The last time an Israeli government fell over this issue was in 1977 when a ceremony was held on the sabbath to welcome the delivery of American fighter aircraft.

When other parts of the turbine were moved on the sabbath earlier in the month secular Israelis stood by the roadside and applauded as the convoy went by.

There were small demonstrations in religious neighbourhoods. Israeli officials have decided that the rest of the turbine will be moved on five successive sabbaths.

The political crisis over the alleged violation of the sabbath by the government exploded again this week when the High Court of Justice cleared the way for the turbine to move. Shas is itself divided over the issue, but would have difficulty going into opposition because it needs government funds to support its education system.

The Israeli election earlier in the year saw a polarisation between religious and secular voters with both Shas and a new secular party called Shinui making significant gains at the polls. Mr Barak is eager to keep Shas in his government because it is prepared to go along with territorial concessions on the West Bank and the Golan Heights.