Middle Israel: Shas comes of age

Yishai's party can play a constructive role in keeping Israeli society intact.

October 18, 2007 13:16
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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There is a new, unsung and very improbable stabilizer in our political salad: Shas. For most of its years, the party that originally burst into the political fray riding the tides of tribal narcissism, religious fanaticism and vulgar nationalism - was a Middle Israeli's anathema. First there was the agenda. The religiously-wrapped abuse of the majority would now be exacerbated with the mass-production of communities which would avoid military service, modern education and gainful employment, while resisting family planning and demanding funds for a rapidly growing and impoverished population's education, housing and welfare. Then there was Shas's manner. Esthetically, its founding mentor entertained some, but annoyed most, with his routine slurs at all his many enemies, from Supreme Court justices whom he dubbed "penetrators of menstruating women," to left-wing lawmakers for whom he wished death. Ethically the record was much more damning. Within two decades of its emergence, Shas managed to see a fifth of the people it sent to the Knesset proceed from there to the courtrooms. The convictions along the years of Aryeh Deri, Ofer Hugi, Rafael Pinhasi, Yair Levi and Yair Peretz in a variety of unrelated cases ranging from election fraud to embezzlement, and now the impending sentence of former minister Shlomo Benizri in a bribery case, all made Shas emerge nearly synonymous with corruption. Finally, there was its political conduct. The party that upon first entering the Knesset in 1984 immediately joined the government soon demonstrated its readiness to bully the rest of the system, as it threatened to bolt the unity government over the registration of converts. In subsequent years it turned fiscal blackmail into a form of art, demanding budgets in the morning and obstructing reform in the evening. Hovering above all this was a pretension to reinvent Israeli history. Realizing the dissonance between its voters' hawkishness and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's ruling that land can be ceded for peace, Shas's ministers elegantly skated back and forth between Right and Left, always making sure to promise everything and deliver nothing. Thus, while Scuds were raining on Tel Aviv, Deri tipped the scale against retaliation, in a dramatic security cabinet session to which he drove on Shabbat. Two years later he tipped the scale again, this time in favor of the Oslo Accords, only to later jump Labor's ship and abandon it to the devices of the violence his abstention had helped generate. SHAS'S CRIMES and misdemeanors did not take place in a vacuum. For better or worse, its elaborate dealings with all who surrounded it - from religious settlers and liberal lefties to modern Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy - were fraught with manipulation, admonition and condescension. The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis humiliated Yosef when they overruled his faction's decision in 1990 to replace Yitzhak Shamir with Shimon Peres. The settlers thought they would take Shas for a ride through the West Bank. The modern Orthodox thought Shas would graciously stay away from the Chief Rabbinate, and the Left thought it would make of Shas a fig leaf for a foreign policy its voters opposed. Ehud Barak even once told Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, as he dispatched him to negotiate with Yosef like a colonial ruler facing a rebellion in a remote province: "Talk to him like an Iraqi to an Iraqi." As late as 2003, an equally conceited Ehud Olmert insisted Shas was a passing phenomenon and predicted it would soon split. As it turned out, the party that split was Olmert's Likud. To all these wise guys, abusers and wishful thinkers, Shas made it plain that even if it was much younger, it was no less shrewd, mean or self-serving than any of them, probably more. And so, by 1999, as Shas peaked at 17 mandates while Deri marched off to jail, all had come to respect it as a power to reckon with. The question was only how durable it was, and whether it could change its ways. And so, all eyes turned to Deri's successor, Eli Yishai. THE FORMER municipal councilman was the flamboyant Deri's inversion. Soft spoken, modest, painfully uncharismatic and generally shorn of his predecessor's weakness for hedonism, drama and shenanigans, Yishai started from a disadvantage, as all were comparing the two. When he bolted Barak's coalition due to his Camp David odyssey, talk was that Yishai was trying to be more Deri than Deri, and when Sharon fired Yishai and his colleagues for voting against his budget, all said of that humiliation: "This would not have happened to Deri." But Yishai has learned. Having been left out of the second Sharon coalition and seen Shas languish nearly three years in the opposition, Yishai returned to power with a new, gentler, smarter kind of Shas, one that is fast ending the soap-opera chapter in its fascinating history. Today's Shas, of course, is still focusing on its constituency's affairs, but it is also prudently keeping an eye on the broader scheme of things. This is how Yishai emerged with the sober statement that Mahmoud Abbas cannot be a partner for concessions because he only represents one third of the Palestinians, and that for now it would be best to focus with him on economics. Yishai was low-key about this, as he was about his meetings with Hosni Mubarak and Condoleezza Rice, but in saying this he expressed Middle Israelis' take on the situation much better than the leaders of Kadima, Labor and the Likud. Meanwhile, Shas parted with ultra-Orthodoxy on the prickly issue of sabbatical-year farming, or shmita, insisting there is no reason to abandon the ruling by which religious Zionism had bypassed that biblical prohibition. While this was Yosef's call rather than any of his politicians', it nonetheless also offered a reminder that Shas can play a constructive role in keeping Israeli society intact, and facing up to a clergy that cares little for Jewish farming and knows nothing about historical development, like the passing of the agrarian society to which the sabbatical idea originally related. Add to this pragmatism Shas's loss of the corruption limelight to Kadima and its leader, and you get a Shas that is an island of stability, sanity and morality in a political landscape otherwise plagued by confusion, improvisation, indecency and allegedly a lot worse. In the upcoming months, we may learn whether this transfiguration merely reflects Shas's coming of age, or the rest of the system's coming apart. www.MiddleIsrael.com

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