Tempest over turbine thrusts Israeli coalition into crisis

JERUSALEM — Israel's religious-secular conflict has taken some odd twists and turns in the past, but no one ever imagined that the first crisis of Israel's new government would be over 250 tons of equipment for an electric generator.

For weeks, Israel Electric Corp., the state-owned power monopoly, has been waiting for five shipments of the equipment — called a reheater but popularly known as "the turbine" — from a factory in central Israel to a new power facility being built near Ashkelon on Israel's southern coast.

The problem is that the load is so large that the trucks hog three lanes as they crawl down the highway at less than five miles an hour through major intersections.

The plan was to ship the equipment on Shabbat, when traffic is lighter. Thus, any problem during the 16-hour trip could be easily cleared up before the Sunday rush hour.

Several months ago, the first such shipment went unnoticed on Shabbat. But that was before the fervently religious Shas Party began running the Infrastructure Ministry, which oversees the energy sector.

On Thursday of last week, Infrastructure Minister Eli Suissa lobbed the first political grenade.

"I do not think that if the government will decide to transport the equipment on Shabbat, that anyone with a kippah on his head will continue to sit at the government table."

With that, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak was plunged into a coalition crisis.

It all seemed a bit absurd, even to veterans of the religious-secular battlefield.

Yet for days before and after the Shas threat, the turbine topped the news. The Supreme Court ruled the police should decide, radio talk shows could not get enough and finally, Barak backed the Shabbat shipment.

According to status quo agreements, he said, unusually large cargoes such as these have been moved on Shabbat for 50 years.

A government crisis was averted on Sunday because Barak agreed that a team would look into ways the other parts of the turbine could be moved on weekdays. However, Shas said that if the team decided future moves had to take place on Shabbat, the party would meet to consider its options.

The crisis appeared to be flaring up again in the middle of this week, amid reports that police officials intended to reject a compromise proposal on the issue — and as the Knesset prepared to meet in a special meeting called by Shas.

Despite all the talk, neither the secular nor religious general public appeared to be getting too emotionally involved in the fate of the large pile of metal. Perhaps, said Health Minister Shlomo Benizri of Shas, the Israeli media was just latching onto the story for lack of other news during the quiet summer season.

When the trucks set out last Friday night, some secular Israelis stood at the roadside and applauded even though they were caught in the late-night weekend traffic as the enormous load inched past. A few fervently religious residents of B'nei B'rak protested.

Yet by Sunday, Barak's coalition was still intact.

Secular lawmakers continued to warn that the affair showed how an overconfident Shas — with 17 Knesset members and four ministers — could flex its muscle in new ways.

Naomi Chazan, a Knesset member from the far-left Meretz Party, said she hoped the affair would not become a precedent.

"If this situation is played correctly — and that requires a certain degree of good will on both sides — then maybe we will be able to find a real means of coexistence," she said.

Meretz and Shas will have ample opportunities to find out. Israel Electric still has four more shipments to complete.