JERUSALEM, September 17 (AP)--His peace plans stalled and his political future in doubt, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has proposed far-reaching reforms that challenge the pre-eminence of Jewish religious law in areas of daily life.
He says Sabbath travel is on the way, and the Cabinet has taken the first steps to removing citizens' religion from identity cards.
The proposals have been dismissed by some as a political expediency; still, they have taken opponents and proponents by surprise and have launched a searing debate about the nation's character.
"Our society is in a very deep crisis," Rabbi Michael Melchior, the government minister charged with drafting some of the changes, said Sunday.
The process has already begun. His Cabinet has ordered the dismantling of the Religions Ministry and has launched the legal process that would remove religion from people's identity cards.
Barak has said his ultimate aim is the country's first constitution--something avoided for 52 years precisely because of the rifts Barak's predecessors feared it would engender.
Last week, Barak pledged public transport on Sabbath within two months, saying it would end discrimination against families who cannot afford cars and miss out on weekend pleasure outings.
On Sunday, he signed the first orders that would privatize El Al, Israel's flagship airline carrier, and said Sabbath flights were inevitable.
Other changes--ending the monopoly on marriage and divorce now enjoyed by the rabbinical establishment, introducing Sabbath shopping, and forcing religious schools to include secular civics classes--must wait for Parliament to reconvene on October 29.
Barak may not have the numbers. After he proposed far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians at July's Camp David talks, two religious coalition partners withdrew, saying they could not abide a government willing to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
That left Barak with a minority government--but one free of religious influence and able to pursue constitutional changes that secular activists have wanted for years.
Some wondered whether Barak--faced with an opposition that may now have the numbers to force him into early elections--was sincere, or if he was already campaigning.
Barak had hoped he would come to the next elections with a peace deal, but that seems increasingly unlikely with talks deadlocked over control of Jerusalem's walled Old City.
Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the leader of the anti-religious Shinui party, said it was clear Barak was campaigning--but that was all to the good.
"If he does the right thing, I don't care if it is out of political considerations," he said.
Those numbers are not enough to justify changes that could tear apart Israeli society, religious leaders say--especially after a series of Supreme Court rulings that have rolled back religious authority in some areas and have severely undermined religious confidence in the establishment.
"At a time when the Israeli internal social fabric is so badly frayed, a revolution that attempts to institutionalize forever 52% of the Israeli population is threatening," said Jonathan Rosenblum, a lawyer who heads a group that defends the rights of the Orthodox, who constitute 15% to 18% of Israel's population.
Shaul Yahalom, a National Religious Party legislator, said the nature of the state was at stake. "This is not a sectarian issue, it's about the state--is Israel a Jewish state?"
A Jewish state is one that allows its citizens to choose how they express their Judaism, said Amnon Rubinstein, who chairs the Knesset's constitutional committee. "The NRP would impose Judaism through the whip.... That turns people away from Judaism."
Melchior, Barak's point man, said he would counsel the prime minister to proceed with caution--and compromise. He has proposed the new constitution tighten the requirements for citizenship, as a salve to the religious. Immediate citizenship is now available to those with just one Jewish grandparent, which the religious say is diluting the country's character.
"We need to deal with these issues very carefully," Melchior said.
Even those who support constitutional change said rushing it for the sake of political expediency could do more harm than good.
"It does not look serious, this is not something you do in a month," said Ruth Amir, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan university. "It takes talking and agreement. We don't want something spontaneous that will be laughed at afterward."