Analysis: Shas resists right-wing pressure over Annapolis

The demonstrations by right-wing activists and settlers outside Shas Chairman Eli Yishai's house in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood are reminiscent of the Oslo days, albeit far less extreme in scope and intensity. Back in 1992, not only Shas MKs were subjected to almost daily demonstrations and confrontations for joining a Labor-led government that included Meretz. Even Shas's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was pestered. His Torah classes were disrupted, his car was blocked and his wife, Margolit (now deceased) was verbally assaulted when she left her house. In contrast, on the eve of the Annapolis summit, no more than a handful of young settlers - led by Asaf Yafin, 30, formally of the Gush Katif settlement Morag and presently living near Hebron - have organized what they call a "vigil" outside Yishai's home. When the Shas chairman appears briefly on his way to or from his home, Yafin - a friend of Ido Zoldan, who was killed in a terrorist shooting last week - flashes a sign that reads, "A righteous man resigns from an evil government." MK Shlomo Benizri told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that he has been also been a victim of right-wing anomosity in the synagogue, on the street or while participating in celebrations. "People come up to me and ask me what Shas is still doing in the coalition," said Benizri. "I manage to shut them up pretty quickly, though." Benizri explains to his retractors that Shas is led by Sephardi Jewry's eminent halachic authority, who has decided that, for the time being, there is no reason to leave the government. Besides, Shas's first priority, like other haredi political parties, is first and foremost to protect Torah institutions. Its second priority is socioeconomic issues. Diplomatic issues take a distant third. Benizri's clincher, which - he says - silences the most vociferous critics, is the fact that the National Religious Party and the National Union, two parties that put Greater Israel at the top of their priority list, sat in the government and allowed former prime minister Ariel Sharon to move ahead with his Gaza disengagement plan. "So they have no right to accuse us," he says. Even the Shas MKs with more right-wing views, such as Nissim Ze'ev and Haim Amsalem, argue that intransigence is bad diplomacy. "We should not come across in the world as the ones who refuse to even talk," said Amsalem. "Besides, thanks to Shas and Israel Beiteinu most of the substantial issues relating to the settling of Palestinian refugees or the division of Jerusalem have been taken off the agenda for Annapolis. So what harm is there in talking?" From the time Shas first entered the Knesset in 1984 with four mandates, there has been tension between Yosef's basically dovish political views and the more right-wing opinions of the party's constituency. Early in his political career, Yosef ruled that it was halachically permissible to make territorial compromises in exchange for lasting peace with the Palestinians. For Yosef, the value of human life outweighed the importance of settling the land of Israel. Out of belief that the agreement would lead to peace, Yosef supported the Oslo Accords, though Shas ended up abstaining in the cabinet and in the Knesset out of deference to its constituency. Shas also supported former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Hebron and Wye agreements. In contrast, Shas was purposely absent from the vote on the Sharm e-Sheikh vote in Ehud Barak's government. But that was primarily due to Barak's failure to live up to a purported promise to cover the budget deficit in Shas's school system, say sources close to Shas. And when Shas left the government on the eve of Barak's departure for the 2000 Camp David talks, it was primarily due to Yishai's understanding that the electoral damage to Shas for agreeing to talk about dividing Jerusalem would be too great. Now, as 2007 draws to a close, the potential political damage to Shas for not leaving the government over Annapolis is nothing compared to the potential loss that the party might sustain as the government prepares to ratify the 2008 state budget.•