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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A journalist once innocently asked a Shas spokesman what the position of the Council of Torah Sages was on a certain political issue. The spokesman poked his head around the door of the party's chairman and saw that Aryeh Deri was taking an afternoon nap. "The council is sleeping," was his answer.
This episode and others gave rise to the image of the council as a rubber stamp to the decisions reached by its president, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the once all-powerful party chairman Deri. Originally the council was set up in 1984 with the foundation of Shas to serve as a counterbalance to the council of Ashkenazi rabbis that directs Agudat Yisrael, the haredi party that had for decades left Sephardi voters unrepresented. But despite the image, and the fact that the council has never voted against Yosef, it is still the only body in the party where opposition to his autocratic rule of Shas is ever voiced.
Shas is the most undemocratic party in Israeli politics. Not only is there not even a semblance of inner elections or primaries, but unlike its Ashkenazi counterpart, United Torah Judaism - where the various rabbis on the two councils (representing Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, the two parties that make up UTJ) at least represent the different haredi groups and Hassidic sects - Shas has remained a one-man show for the last 24 years.
The Council of Torah Sages resembles a people's parliament in an authoritarian regime. It allows the dictator to get an idea of what the population is thinking. Representatives can let off steam occasionally, but ultimately the decisions reached will be in accordance with his wishes, providing him with a fa ade of legitimacy.
The three other members of the council are veteran Sephardi rabbis. Two of them, Shalom Cohen and Shimon Ba'adani, are old colleagues of Yosef's. Both studied with him in the 1940s and 1950s and have been council members since its inception.
The only member with real political experience is Moshe Maya. He met Yosef in the early 1970s when as a young rabbi in the Tel Aviv working class neighborhood of Yad Eliahu, he was encouraged by the then chief rabbi of the city. Maya was originally the secretary of the council and was elected in 1992 to the Knesset and served in the Rabin government as deputy education minister. Four years later he decided that it was no life for a rabbi, and in a move unusual for an MK left on his own volition.
Unlike Yosef, who is constantly sheltered by family members and aides, Maya and to a lesser extent Cohen and Ba'adani are accessible to regular Shas voters and articulate grassroots concerns at council meetings. These are not held regularly but rather only when Yosef and the current chairman, Industry, Trade and Employment Minister Eli Yishai, have to make unpopular decisions for the party. The council is also convened before elections to decide on the makeup of the party's parliamentary list and afterwards to authorize coalition agreements and appoint ministers.
In the past, members of the council have tried to oppose various decisions made by Yosef. The most serious conflict was when Yosef decided to defy the late haredi leader Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Shach and support Shimon Peres's attempt to set up a Labor coalition in 1990 in the episode named by Yitzhak Rabin "the stinking manuever."
One of the original members, Rabbi Shabtai Atun, resigned from the council in the aftermath. Other disputes were over the decisions to join Labor-led coalitions in 1992 and 1999 and the ouster of Deri after he was found guilty of bribery charges - a move that almost split the council and the party.
Yosef, who has historically supported the "land-for-peace" formula, has often found himself at odds with the other members, especially with Cohen and Ba'adani, who share more right-wing views with the great majority of Shas voters. In the end, though, they have always deferred to his seniority. However, there have been occasions on which the council was not convened to avoid an open rift.
Yosef was aware that some of his views would be unpalatable to his public. In the 1996 elections, he wanted to support his old friend Peres in the prime ministerial elections, but he realized that the party's voters hated Peres and might desert the party. He allowed Deri to embrace Binyamin Netanyahu, though he wasn't officially endorsed by the party. Yosef himself voted Peres and directed his family members to do the same.
If it was solely up to Yosef, he would have ordered the 17 Shas MKs to vote for Peres in the presidential race seven years ago, but he was convinced that his constituency wouldn't accept the party not voting for Moshe Katsav, who is both Sephardi and traditional.
This time around, though, he won't have any trouble convincing the council members to go along. Politically they might feel closer to Likud's Ruby Rivlin, and there is a right-wing campaign pressuring them to allow Shas MKs freedom to vote according to their conscience, but Yosef isn't going to give in.
Rivlin is a secular candidate, so he has no advantage over Peres. In addition, after the miserable way in which Katsav's presidential term has ended, Yosef will say to his colleagues that they now owe it to Peres, who has always made huge efforts to obtain Shas's approval. The decision at Thursday's meeting is a foregone conclusion.
Of course, with Peres, no election outcome is ever certain, and who knows what the Shas MKs will do when the time to vote actually comes? Some of them have defied the rabbi's orders in the past, though they usually haven't managed to get away with it for long. But at least this time, Peres has Yosef's vote.