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The BBC's Hilary Andersson in Jerusalem
"He sold out his own secular supporters"
 real 28k

Yuli Edelstein, former government minister
"I don't think the coalition in its present form will last very long"
 real 28k

Naomi Chazan, Meretz MP Northern Israel
"We have promised we will support the coalition"
 real 28k

Thursday, 22 June, 2000, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Barak averts coalition collapse
Shas Council of Torah Sages
The deal increases Shas's power and prestige
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has saved his governing coalition from collapse by persuading a key religious party not to pull out.

The last minute about-turn by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party was made possible by the resignation of three cabinet ministers from the left-wing Meretz party on Wednesday.

Barak can continue the peace process, but we are not committed to the results

Shas leader Eli Yishai
Shas had blamed Meretz for blocking a financial and political package to save its corruption-tainted network of religious schools.

However, in a sign of further troubles ahead, Shas leader Eli Yishai said his party was not committed to the results of future land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians.

BBC Jerusalem correspondent Hilary Andersson says that, having caved in to most of Shas's demands, Mr Barak is likely to have further difficulties with the party - which is the largest coalition partner of his One Israel bloc.

Meretz boss Yossi Sarid
Meretz boss Yossi Sarid pulled out to save the peace process
But a confident-sounding prime minister said Shas's participation in government was important for national unity and facing future challenges.

"It is impossible to make peace with our neighbours unless we first make peace amongst ourselves," Mr Barak told a Labour party assembly.

The deal to rescue the coalition is thought to include a Shas promise to bring down a bill calling for early elections, which it supported after the schools' funding row in cabinet.

I still believe that Shas's continued participation in the government is important for national unity and the challenges ahead

PM Ehud Barak

"The Council of Torah Sages instructs the Shas ministers to withdraw their resignation letters," Raphael Pinhasi, secretary-general of Shas's council of spiritual leaders, said.

To the brink

The resignations had been due to take effect at 1545 GMT on Thursday, which would have left Mr Barak without a parliamentary majority to push through legislation governing regional peace efforts.

One Israel officials held talks through the night with members of Shas, following the Meretz resignations.

Meretz said it would continue to support the prime minister in parliamentary votes.

Shas draws support from underprivileged Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

It has served in both left- and right-wing coalitions, and correspondents say it habitually uses its position to squeeze sectarian concessions.

Peace deadline

With a September target date for a peace treaty with the Palestinians looming, Mr Barak is under pressure to concentrate on the negotiations.

Shas religious school
Shas has channelled funds into inefficient denominational schools
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is due to return to the region next week to try to narrow differences between the two sides' entrenched positions.

Meretz's resigning education minister, Yossi Sarid, was the harshest critic of Shas's school system, but his party said it sacrificed three cabinet posts to enable further peacemaking.

The schools have been plagued by inefficiency, malpractice and funding irregularities.

Mr Sarid, an advocate of open government, had been blocking an arrangement which would have decreased his control over the schools.

Shas health minister Shlomo Benizri told Israel Radio that Mr Sarid could return any minute if he transferred responsibility of the schools to his deputy, Meshulam Nahari of Shas.

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See also:

22 Jun 00 | Middle East
Israel's paralysing democracy
21 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Barak's political battlefield
21 Jun 00 | Middle East
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould
15 Jun 00 | Middle East
Arafat scorns Israeli peace effort
21 Jun 00 | Middle East
Barak rules out early elections
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