Eli Yishai first started working for the Shas Party in 1984 shortly after completing his military service, and began his political career as an aide to Nissim Ze’ev, who was then a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council and one of Shas’s founders.
Yishai soon began working his way up the hierarchy of power in the movement, first as a Jerusalem Municipal Council member himself, then as an assistant to new Shas interior minister Arye Deri, entering Knesset for the party in 1996 and assuming the role of welfare minister, finally inheriting the leadership of Shas when Deri was convicted on bribery charges and sent to prison.
So after more than 30 years as a central figure in Shas, it was perhaps unsurprising that when Yishai announced to massed ranks of reporters and cameramen that he was forming a new party in December, he seemed almost dazed and shocked at himself – as if he could not quite believe what he had done.
Since then, Yishai has built his new Yahad party, pitching it as a new political union of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, haredi and national-religious, while moving sharply to the political Right in order to gain hard-line voters from both those communities.
To this end, he united the Yahad electoral list with the hard-right Otzma Yehudit Party in order to attract the fiercely nationalistic voters on the Right and in the settlement movement.
In conversation with The Jerusalem Post
this week, the new party leader described his vision for Yahad, and spoke out uncompromisingly against any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, and equally strongly in favor of preserving the status quo on matters of religion and state.
“I always had a dream for the Jewish people, and the Yahad party is the realization of my dream to bring together Sephardim, Ashkenazim, those who wear black yarmulkes and knitted yarmulkes, religious, secular,” he explained.
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“When we go to the Western Wall or many synagogues, there are always a mixture of people – haredi, national-religious, non-religious, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, basically everyone together.
“Why is it then that in the Knesset, everyone has their own parties – haredim by themselves, Sephardi by themselves, everyone by themselves.
Why aren’t we all together? “It’s only when we’re together that we will be able to deal better with the our national issues, and especially the problems faced by the weaker sectors of society. I came from the weaker sectors,” he continued, in reference to poverty and socioeconomic disparities in Israel.
Turning to diplomatic and security affairs, Yishai was strident in ruling out giving up any territory to the Palestinians.
“I want to protect the Land of Israel. We need to do this together, not while fighting each other,” he said, describing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority as a fallacy.
“Unfortunately, there is no negotiation with the Palestinians, all there is giving and more giving, They are not willing to recognize a Jewish state even on a declarative basis.
“There’s not much difference between [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Hamas; he [Abbas] also doesn’t want to recognize Israel.
“In all of his schools, he’s raising their children to be shahids [martyrs]. Is this negotiation?” he asked.
“I am in favor of economic peace, but it is impossible to give away any territory from the Land of Israel; I do not believe in this. We are against returning territory.”
Nevertheless, Yishai led the Shas Party when it was a coalition partner in the Olmert government between 2006 and 2009, during which time far-reaching territorial concessions were offered to the Palestinian Authority by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
And Shas under Yishai’s leadership was also a partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government during the settlement freeze in 2010, designed to bring Abbas back to the negotiation table.
Yishai contended, however, that he had opposed both policies verbally and would not agree to any future settlement freeze.
“We opposed what Olmert was offering to the Palestinians, and I voted against the settlement freeze. I am in favor of building in every place where there are Jews; there is no reason not to build.”
And Yishai’s stridency was also clearly on display when he spoke of the many issues pertaining to religion and state that the outgoing Knesset addressed or sought to reform.
In particular, the MK criticized the law for haredi conscription passed last year, saying it had damaged efforts to recruit men from the ultra-Orthodox community to military and national service.
“The law that was passed only distances haredim from the army. Successive Israeli governments simply did not want to fund the integration of haredim into the army, and there was an ongoing fight between the IDF and the Treasury over who should fund the extra expense, such as mehadrin food and requirements to separate haredi soldiers from women in the army.
“But [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid acted coercively with this law and it has had a detrimental effect on haredi enlistment,” he insisted.
Yishai said the critical clause in the conscription law that imposes the possibility of two years’ imprisonment on haredi yeshiva students refusing to serve, as applies to all other Jewish men of military age, was unacceptable – and that he would work to change it.
“We need to amend the legislation, it cannot be written in law that someone who studies Torah is a criminal. This must be forbidden in the Jewish state, and we need to remove the criminal sanctions clause.”
He was vague as to what Yahad would seek to put in place of the criminal sanctions clause, but said he would not agree to the idea of imposing economic penalties on haredi men for not serving either.
“We will sit with our rabbis after the elections and decide how to amend the law, [but] we won’t agree to economic sanctions. It’s forbidden to have sanctions on haredim, either economic or criminal.”
Besides the issue of haredi conscription, Yishai also expressed opposition to the legislation that was passed or introduced in the outgoing Knesset that attempted to reform the provision of religious services, and to moderate and liberalize the status of religion in the public domain.
Yishai described the various bills dealing with such issues as “a wave of very grave legislation against haredim” which the state has not seen until now, adding that “these things must be amended.”
One such piece of legislation was a bill passed to eliminate the twin positions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, and unite the positions when the 10-year term of the current chief rabbis ends. Despite his declarations about uniting different communities, Yishai refused to give a direct answer as to whether he would support the continued legislative progression of one chief rabbi bill, saying that he would have to consult with his party’s rabbinic guides before taking a position.
And when asked about the efforts made under the last government to introduce core curriculum studies to Ashkenazi haredi primary schools, most of which do not teach the required subjects for the requisite amount of hours, Yishai said he would not interfere in another community’s education system.
He also refused to enter into the details of the conversion law recently passed by government order to allow municipal chief rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, insisting only that conversion be done according to Jewish law, again saying it was a matter for the rabbis to decide on.
“We love everyone and want to draw everyone closer to Judaism. But we need to do conversion according to Jewish law. We love everyone who came from the former Soviet Union, and embrace them and acknowledge their contribution. Many of them want to convert, I think, and they are able to do so,” he said.
Since the beginning of his election campaign, Yishai has said explicitly on several occasions that Yahad will recommend Netanyahu to the president to form the next government, a declaration he repeated during his interview with the Post
It therefore seems extremely likely that if the Center-Right bloc wins the election and the Yahad party manages to pass the electoral threshold, Yishai and his party will be a part of the next government.
The hawkish positions he has taken on security and diplomatic issues since his campaign began have been notable for their populist appeal to the right wing, and his strategy of accentuating this sentiment – which Yishai clearly sees as the prevailing zeitgeist of Israeli society – is likely to see him in the next Knesset if the current polling is any indication.
Given his rhetoric and bombast throughout the election campaign, it would seem reasonable to expect from Yahad a highly antagonistic approach to any accommodation with the Palestinians, and a deeply conservative attitude to any reform to the pressing concerns of Judaism’s interaction with the state over the next few years.
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