JERUSALEM, March 27 (AFP) - The shaky coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak survived a new crisis Monday after a key religious party decided to remain in government despite a criminal inquiry launched into its revered spiritual leader.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas -- whose support is vital to Barak and his drive for Middle East peace -- is accused of incitement to violence over an extraordinary tirade against long-time political opponent Education Minister Yossi Sarid. The Council of Torah Sages, which provides the party's spiritual leadership, issued a statement after a meeting Monday condemning the investigation, but saying the party would "remain in the government for the time being."
The departure of Shas -- the country's third largest party with 17 MPs -- would have left Barak's nine-month-old government with a minority in the 120-member parliament or Knesset, at a time when he needs to muster support for any future peace deal with Syria.
Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein announced that Yosef will be investigated under Israel's terrorism laws for encouraging violence which could lead to killing, insulting a public official and defamation.
Yosef triggered a political storm on March 18 when he used his regular sermon at a Jerusalem synagogue to describe Sarid as Satan, saying he should be "wiped off the earth" and calling for the congregation to curse the minister.
"We have no indication that Rabbi Yosef has retracted his remarks," Rubinstein said in announcing the investigation. Indeed, Yosef delivered a similar outburst the following week, branding Sarid a racist and accusing him of hating the Torah, the sacred Jewish book of law.
Yosef's invective shocked an Israeli public that is highly sensitive to such remarks after the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a right-wing extremist following a vicious hate campaign by opponents of his peace policies.
It also highlighted the tensions in Barak's patchwork coalition, which includes both Shas and Sarid's secular leftist Meretz party, which has 10 seats in parliament.
The attack was the latest in a long-running conflict between Shas and Sarid, rooted in disputes over education policy.
Shas, which champions the cause of Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin, has threatened to quit Barak's government on several occasions and openly flirted with the right-wing opposition Likud party.
Earlier this month, members of Shas voted in favour of an unsuccessful censure motion against the government over Sarid's proposal to include the works of celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish in the Israeli school curriculum.
The party's political leader Eli Yishai, who is Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, denounced the inquiry as a "racist and discriminatory" act against Sephardic Jews.
And his Shas colleague, Health Minister Shlomo Benizri, charged: "We are considered second class citizens."
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