Politics: Holy cow

In spite of its threats to leave the government over reports that Jerusalem is on the negotiating table - and harsh criticism from the Right - Shas is staying put, thanks to Olmert's political promises.

Jerusalem old city 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem old city 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When 20 Sderot residents visited the home of Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood on Wednesday morning, they were hoping to hear that the party was on its way out of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. After all, they had been seeing headlines all week that the party was ready to leave the coalition over secret negotiations between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Palestinian Authority's Ahmed Qurei on the future of Jerusalem, which were revealed by Jerusalem Post Palestinian affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh. Shas chairman Eli Yishai promised his faction in a meeting on Monday that he would remove the party from the government if it were true that Israel was "prepared to withdraw from almost all the Arab neighborhoods and villages in Jerusalem," as senior PA officials in Ramallah said in the report. But the Sderot residents left the rabbi's house disappointed. Instead of a promise to leave the government, he merely gave them a blessing. He said he would instruct Shas ministers to push for a ground operation in the Gaza Strip - but from inside the coalition. Little did the Sderot residents know that Yosef had already decided before they arrived to remain in the coalition unless he was given unquestionable proof that Jerusalem's fate had been negotiated. He told Yishai on Tuesday that he had gone too far with his threats and that he should make peace with Olmert. "The rabbi is not in a hurry to leave this coalition," a source close to him said. Shas officials cited the reinstitution of the Religious Affairs Ministry and Yosef's son's upcoming race for chief Sephardi rabbi of Jerusalem as reasons why. Two hours after the Sderot residents returned to their protest tent outside the Knesset, Yishai met inside with Olmert and received assurances that satisfied him. Olmert promised that Jerusalem would not be discussed until the end of the negotiations with the Palestinians and that he would make sure Livni abided by that vow. Livni told Yishai the same a few hours later. She promised that no negotiations would be kept secret from him, and he gave up his threat to leave the government - at least for the time being. "We are satisfied for now, but if secret negotiations begin tomorrow, we are leaving," a source close to Yishai said following his meetings with Olmert and Livni. "He believes the prime minister and the foreign minister. If he didn't, we would leave the coalition." SHAS OFFICIALS stressed on Thursday that their threat was still standing and that the crisis was not over. They said that Yishai's decision to cancel a planned visit to Har Homa on Thursday with MKs from the rightist National Union-National Religious Party was "because of the weather." But Olmert's air of confidence suggested otherwise when he told reporters in the Knesset cafeteria minutes after he left Yishai that there was no coalition crisis and that "Eli Yishai will remain deputy prime minister for a long time." Olmert said he understood that Yishai was under a lot of pressure from the extreme Right. He made a point of mentioning the Channel 2 report that American Jews had offered $1 million to anyone who brought him down. Yosef's eldest son, Rabbi Ya'acov Yosef, called for the party to quit the government in an interview with Eretz Yisrael Shelanu, a Torah flyer that will be distributed at synagogues this Saturday by the extremist Campaign for Saving the People and the Land of Rabbi Shlomo Wolpo. "Shas is betraying its Council of Torah Sages by remaining in the government that is endangering the nation," Yosef said. "Shas will never be able to forgive itself for not quitting the government right now. Every additional minute staying in the government is very dangerous." Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira, the scion of one of Shas's leading families, wrote a letter to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef saying that he "could not describe the pressure he was receiving from the Jews of the United States and France who are concerned about the holy city." In a meeting of Kach supporters, who were strategizing new protests against Shas, one of the closest followers of slain Rabbi Meir Kahane denounced what he called the "Shastitutes" for selling out Jerusalem. Shas MKs complained this week that they were constantly accosted at weddings and bar mitzvas by people pleading with them to leave the government. But one Shas MK said it was usually national religious people who approached him and not Shas voters, so he did not take the confrontations too seriously. "Everyone who tries to preach to me, whether in public or by e-mail, gets such a tongue-lashing that afterward, they don't even know what hit them," the MK said defiantly. "The National Religious Party sold out Gaza by remaining in the government ahead of the disengagement. They were ready to allow civil couplehood unions in Israel. They have no ethics and they have no right to scold me." A Shvakim Panorama poll broadcast on Israel Radio helped prove the MK's point. The poll found that while 49 percent of the general public wanted Shas to leave the government and just 35% wanted it to remain, among Shas voters, more than 75% want to stay. So unless Rabbi Ovadia Yosef receives irrefutable proof that Jerusalem's fate is on the negotiating table, the residents of Sderot still have a lot more convincing to do.