Analysis: The world can bark, but Shas has bite

Why did the Givat Ze'ev plan get a green light? Fraser can't bring the government down; Yishai can.

Olmert Yishai walk 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Olmert Yishai walk 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
US Lt.-Gen. William Fraser is scheduled to convene a meeting later this week with Israeli and Palestinian representatives and discuss the implementation of their road map obligations. Even before the government announced Sunday that it would approve the building of some 330 housing units in a neighborhood in Givat Ze'ev, and even before Shas head Eli Yishai spoke on Tuesday of building a new neighborhood in east Jerusalem and more units in the large settlements, it was clear that Fraser, the US road map referee, would rap Israel on the knuckles for not living up to its commitment under the road map to freeze settlement construction. And now, after the government's decision and Yishai's comments, Fraser is likely to hit Israel's knuckles even harder. If so, one can ask, why did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert go ahead and give the green light for the Givat Ze'ev plan? The reason is simple: Fraser can't bring the government down; Yishai can, and - judging by Olmert's apparent interest in keeping him happy - just might. With everything else going on around us - rockets on Sderot and missiles on Ashkelon, the roadside bombings on the Gaza perimeter fence, the massacre in Jerusalem, the rock-throwing on the coastal road, Hizbullah and Iran - one thing very high up on Olmert's agenda, as it would be on the agenda of any self-respecting politician, is political survival. And as far as political survival is concerned, Yishai right now is more important to Olmert than Fraser. He is also more important than even US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who most likely expressed displeasure with the plan in her meeting Tuesday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and more important than UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, both of whom condemned the Givat Ze'ev decision. But Olmert, in the midst of a battle just to survive, is thinking in the short term, wanting to make it one day at a time. In that case, he needs Yishai more than anyone else. Olmert's decision on Givat Ze'ev indicates that he knows something about the seriousness of Shas threats to leave the government, for he certainly knew that approving the plan would bring upon him world condemnation. Nevertheless, he seems to have done a cost-benefit analysis and come to the conclusion that at this time he has more to lose by bucking Yishai than he does by turning a deaf ear to Rice, Ban, Solana and the other international leaders. There are, according to government sources, currently two camps in Shas. The first, headed by Communications Minister Ariel Attias, believes that right now Shas is exactly where it wants to be and where it was so often during the heyday of Aryeh Deri: king-maker, the party that can tip the balance and can determine whether a government remains or is toppled. Attias believes Shas is benefiting from this position - witness the recent reestablishment of the Religious Affairs Ministry - and should not topple the government. Yishai is of a different mind. He apparently is leaning toward leaving the government because of concern that remaining inside - being seen as the fig leaf for a government that is unpopular among his constituents - will hurt Shas in the next elections. What Olmert is doing now is trying to convince Yishai otherwise, persuade him that it remains in his interest, and in the interest of his party's supporters, to stay inside the government. Be that as it may, the road map still says what the road map says, and what it says is that Israel must "immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001," and that the government needs to freeze "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." Those clauses do not jibe with a decision to build in any of the settlements, even those that Israel believes will remain under its jurisdiction according to any future agreement, and in which it believes US President George W. Bush has implicitly agreed Israel could build. The problem is that Bush's perceived consent was always implied, never spelled out, and no US official has ever gone on record as supporting the interpretation of US policy under which Israel has been operating since 2002 - that it could continue to build in the large settlement blocs as long as the building did not go beyond the existing construction lines. In other words, Israel believed that the US gave a wink and a nod to a policy that would allow building upward, but not outward, in the large settlements blocs. Rice, however, has stated in recent months that this is not US policy, and that when the US calls for a settlement freeze, it means just that: a settlement freeze - all over (she even said in January that this included east Jerusalem). Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that Rice applied too much pressure on Livni in their meeting Tuesday, or that the US will twist Olmert's arm too hard now, for no other reason than that Washington is afraid of the alternative. Livni might have had trouble squaring Israel's policy with what is written in the road map document, but she could tell Rice - and likely did tell Rice - that the US needed to decide whether it would prefer an Olmert government that freed up some housing construction in Givat Ze'ev, Ma'aleh Adumim, Efrat and Ariel, or a government headed by opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, which would likely okay much more construction, and in other settlements as well. In that scenario, it is clear the US administration also wants to ensure Yishai stays in the current government - road map or not.