Ehud Baraks call for civil reform

Even if Prime Minister Ehud Barak fails in his announced plans to bring civil reform to Israel, he has planted a seed for the future.

For years Israel's secular majority has bristled that the religious establishment made too many decisions that impacted on Israeli's day-to-day lives.

Barak's proposal would do away with the Religious Affairs Ministry; permit civil marriages, removing marriage between Jews from the exclusive control of the Orthodox rabbinate; and give women more equality.

His proposal would even create more equality between Jews and non-Jews in Israel.

If that weren't enough, he said he would require that the fervently religious, who up until now have been exempted from military service, do non-military work for two years. And Orthodox schools would be forced to teach classes they have shunned, including math, English and civics.

Political pundits give Barak almost no chance of accomplishing any of this.

The fervently religious parties have so much power in the Knesset that they have been able to unseat governments and help fashion new governments. Undoubtedly, they could bring a no-confidence vote that might force new elections on Barak.

Even the Likud Party, many of whose members might quietly support secular reform, will join with the fervently religious to topple Barak.

Barak knows this. Nevertheless, he took a calculated risk that he hopes will win him the support of Israel's secular majority if new elections are held.

Even if these civil reforms are dismissed, Barak did something no other prime minister had the guts to do. He has stood up to the fervently religious establishment, which has controlled a number of Israeli institutions since 1948.

Barak's proposed reforms are so sweeping that they cannot be dismissed from Israel's political landscape. They will resurface again and again, and possibly be enacted piecemeal.

Israeli secularists will make sure of that.