Degel Hatorah close to joining coalition

Olmert holds secret meeting with party MK Ravitz in effort to fortify government against Labor's departure.

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The Labor Party central committee is expected to convene next month to consider leaving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition, but Olmert is taking steps to ensure his government does not fall even if the committee unexpectedly approves the proposal. Olmert held a secret meeting at the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday with Degel Hatorah MK Avraham Ravitz and made significant progress on a plan to allow Degel MKs Ravitz and Moshe Gafni to join the government without their four Agudat Yisrael colleagues from United Torah Judaism. The coalition currently numbers 78 MKs, so if Labor's 19 MKs were to leave it would fall to 59. Ravitz and Gafni's joining would give Olmert the security of having a majority in the Knesset even without Labor, ahead of the Winograd Report's release next week and the May 28 Labor primary. Degel's main request is for the government to pass a bill requiring equal funding for haredi education. Olmert expressed support for the legislation in the meeting, which was also attended by his advisers Yisrael Maimon and Ovad Yehezkel. "I am in favor of granting your requests even if you don't join the government, because your children as Israeli citizens deserve the same education as any other children," Olmert told Ravitz during the meeting. Ravitz said he noticed a sense of urgency on the part of Olmert and his advisers to finish the deal. He said he was negotiating with the approval of Degel's spiritual leader, Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv. "We are already at the stage of writing documents on the way to an agreement," Ravitz said. "Within a matter of days, it will go to the rabbi for final approval." If Degel Hatorah joins the government without Agudat Yisrael, it would likely result in a split, for the third time, between the two parties that represent the Lithuanian and hassidic sectors of Ashkenazi haredi Judaism. MK Ya'acov Litzman of Agudat Yisrael said he doubted that Degel's rabbis would risk such an outcome. "If there is another split, we will never again be able to unite," he warned. "But I don't see it happening that we'll be in the opposition and they'll be in the government. Degel is just trying to get money from the government, but they won't succeed." Litzman said the relationship between Agudat Yisrael's principal mentor, the Gerrer Rebbe, and Degel spiritual leaders Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman had improved recently. He said it would be especially odd if Degel joined without Agudat Yisrael because the latter was interested in joining the government when it was formed but Degel declined. Ravitz said he was encouraged by Labor leadership candidate Ophir Paz-Pines's announcement on Tuesday night that he had collected enough signatures to force a meeting of the Labor central committee to consider leaving the government. Paz-Pines, who quit the cabinet six months ago, said there was no point in remaining in a government embroiled in scandal, and in which Labor had become redundant. "The Labor central committee has to say clearly what the public has been saying for quite some time: 'Olmert go home, because you have failed,'" Paz-Pines wrote in a letter submitted to Labor's chairman Amir Peretz and secretary-general Eitan Cabel; it was signed by around 300 central committee members. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu also criticized the government on Tuesday, calling upon it to act to stop Kassam rockets from being fired. He added that "unlike with the Second Lebanon War, they should first make sure that the army and home front are ready in case Israel's actions lead to an escalation on other fronts."