Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened a round of hurried negotiations this week with the two main Israeli opposition parties, Labour and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, in the hope of finding a third leg to prop up his collapsing government. Labour officials said they believed the talks could be completed before the Knesset leaves for its summer recess in two weeks. If an agreement cannot be reached, elections will loom large. The negotiations to create a unity government gained an unexpected urgency last week following the dismissal from the cabinet and his party of Yosef Paritzky over revelations that he had plotted to frame a senior rival figure in his centrist secular Shinui Party before the last elections, in January 2003.
In principle there is protection of religious rights, such as the freedom of religious practice and worship. But in reality Israel has devised a partial theocracy in which large areas of the citizens’ private dealings with the state fall exclusively under the control of religious authorities. So there is no option of a civil marriage within Israel, nor are inter-faith marriages possible. The religious authorities — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — have sole authority over issuing birth, marriage and death certificates. The Interior Ministry refuses to classify citizens on their ID cards in any terms other than ones that reveal their ethnic and religious identities. Even the adoption law of 1981 provides that a child can only be adopted by people of the same religion. The outcome, if not the purpose, of all these measures has been to reinforce the ghettoisation of the weaker, non-Jewish religions.
The first visit in several years of the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should have sent a collective shiver down the spine of the Israeli defence establishment. Instead, it passed by with little publicity or tension. Mohamed El-Baradei’s two-day visit included a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and concluded without any real pressure being exerted on Israel over its policy of “nuclear ambiguity”. According to Israeli officials, El-Baradei did not test whether he would be barred from the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev. He did not even ask for access to the site, which is believed to be used in the manufacture of nuclear armaments.
An Israeli Knesset committee is currently formulating a constitution for Israel — the first such attempt in its 56 years. The task was abandoned early in the state’s history, after the country’s founding fathers feared that giving a precise definition to the state’s character would tear apart the fragile consensus between secular and religious Jews and that a Bill of Rights would enshrine in law rights it wanted to deny the Palestinians. Instead, the founding document of the state, the Declaration of Independence, made a promise: that Israel would “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex”.