Amid the unseemly scenes Sunday at the press conference called by MK Eli Yishai to announce his split from Shas and the establishment of a new party, one image stands out.
As loyalists of Shas and chairman MK Arye Deri broke into the conference room and tussled with Yishai activists, one man took the picture of late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that stood behind Yishai as he addressed the press.
The Shas supporter shouted that Yishai had betrayed the revered rabbi, while a Yishai supporter tried to wrest the picture back from him.
The symbolism is hard to ignore. Two factions will now engage in what is likely to be a fierce fight for legitimacy in the eyes of the Sephardi public, both traditional and haredi, and both will use the image, memory, and legacy of Yosef in order to seek the upper hand.
Yishai would appear at face value to have a weaker hand by far. The Shas Council of Torah Sages, which includes one of Yosef’s sons, Rabbi David Yosef, will undoubtedly strongly criticize Yishai in short order and denounce him for rebelling against Deri, who, they will point out, was appointed by Yosef before he died.
If, or more likely, when the attacks start, Yishai will likely accuse Deri and his loyalists of having deceived and manipulated the elderly Yosef into bringing him back into the Shas fold in 2012 and appointing him chairman in 2013 while ousting Yishai from the post.
Yishai has threatened to make revelations about this period, and could focus on the frequent threats by Deri’s camp, if not Deri himself, to start his own party if he were not allowed to rejoin Shas.
Rabbi Meir Mazuz, a yeshiva head and respected rabbi in the Sephardi community, has given his full support to Yishai, but his influence and electoral value are questionable. He is originally from Tunisia, as is Yishai, and commands respect and following in the Tunisian Sephardic community in Israel.
Mazuz was never included in the Shas Council of Torah Sages when Yosef was alive, because the council was largely passive and merely rubber stamped Yosef’s decisions. This situation would not have sat well with Mazuz, who is known for his strong opinions and proclivity to pronounce them.
But whether his influence can overcome the power of the symbolism and memory of Yosef that will be wielded by Shas remains to be seen.
Equally however, the four rabbis on the Council of Torah Sages are not well known outside the haredi world. It was Yosef’s charisma and engagement with the traditional Sephardi community that gave Shas its political power and reach. His replacement, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, has little recognition outside the haredi world.
Cohen, Shas’s new spiritual guide and council president, has a fierce demeanor and an uncompromising, conservative mindset and is likely to be a liability rather than an advantage in the battle for votes.
One clear advantage Yishai has is no-one will suspect him of having any intention to ally with the center-left bloc, as Deri has done, and could do again.
Yishai steered Shas rightward during his 13-year tenure as party chair and has always taken a more right-wing outlook on diplomatic concerns with the Palestinians, a stance which is in keeping with the Sephardic target audience.
Under Deri, however, Shas joined a government with Meretz and Labor in 1992, and the party’s MKs abstained in the Knesset vote on the Oslo Accords in 1993, preventing the motion from being defeated.
One recent factor that has undermined Deri’s authority, but which has proven to be a boon for Yishai, is the worrying polling results for Shas in the months since Yosef died.
Until this week, Shas was frequently polling at between six and eight seats, a decline from its current strength of 11 MKs.
A poll released Tuesday conducted by Panels for the Knesset Channel put Shas and Yishai’s parties with four seats each.
While Yishai will be buoyed by unexpectedly promising figures, Shas and Deri will be concerned by what could become an almost total collapse.
Ultimately, even if support for Yishai’s party falls away during the campaign, it is the fate of Shas which will be most significant to the political scene.
As one analyst noted, if Shas were to take eight or nine seats in the coming elections, it could be seen as a significant achievement given the circumstance.
If however, Yishai’s new party, Kahlon’s Koolanu, the Likud, Bayit Yehudi, and even United Torah Judaism manage to bleed enough votes from what looks like the tempting pool of Shas’s former target audience, then the party may be in real trouble.
Should Shas’s representation drop down to four or five mandates, it could spell the beginning of the end for what has been a powerful political force for the past 30 years.