Analyze This: Is Shas trying to shake off pressure to quit the government with talk of gays and earthquakes?

Benizri prefers questions on link between gay sex, earthquakes.

Yishai 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yishai 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There's a silver lining in Thursday's news that senior Shas official David Yifrach, director of the Histadrut Labor Federation's welfare services division, has been suspended from his duties after being interrogated by police on suspicion of sexually harassing three women in his office. At least it won't be the cause of more earthquakes here. In the Shas viewpoint - or at least as articulated earlier this week by Shas MK Shlomo Benizri - it is only consensual homosexual relations, and not heterosexual sex crimes, that are liable to shake up the tectonic plates of the Syro-African rift. "Why do earthquakes happen?" Benizri asked, during Wednesday's special Knesset session on earthquake preparedness, in the wake of the several small tremors felt in the region the last few months. "One of the reasons is the things to which the Knesset gives legitimacy, to sodomy. A cost-effective way of averting earthquake damage would be to stop passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the State of Israel." Benizri has been silent so far on the Yifrach affair, suggesting that indecent conduct, as long as it is carried across the gender line, lacks sufficient sinfulness to register on the Richter scale - as does pious hypocrisy, it would seem. Such comments are usually no surprise coming from the direction of Shas, especially when they emanate from the direction of the Sephardi religious party's shoot-from-the-lip spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Veteran MK Benizri, though, is usually regarded as one of the shrewder and slicker Shas politicians, and it is tempting to speculate about what it was that sparked his outburst at this particular time. It may be that Benizri was simply reacting to the recent landmark legal ruling by Attorney General Menahem Mazuz giving same-sex couples the right to that legally adopt children - except that this decision had nothing to do with the Knesset. Or perhaps he was simply seeking to top the claim made a few weeks ago by his party colleague, MK Nissim Dayan, that homosexuality was a plague "as toxic as bird flu… carrying out the destruction of the Israeli people and the Jewish people." Another possibility to consider is that Benizri is choosing to deliberately play the demagogue and score some headlines, on an issue that plays best with his party's hard-core conservative-fundamentalist base. Why would this be a priority for Shas at the moment? Well, let's consider what most of the other media coverage of the party focused on this week. Shas joined the Kadima-led coalition supposedly on the condition that it would stay in only as long as the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority not begin to deal with key final-status issues, in particular the fate of Jerusalem. Several media reports, most prominently one in The Jerusalem Post quoting a senior Palestinian source, have asserted that the subject of Jerusalem's future political status is indeed now on the negotiating table. So did Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week, although the PMO denies it. Whether this is or isn't the case, there is no question that Olmert has recently moved to tighten his supervision over, and limit, construction in the greater Jerusalem area over the Green Line, another supposed red-line for Shas. As a result, the heat on Shas to quit the government has been turned up considerably during the past few days - by Sderot protesters, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and much of the Orthodox public that, while not necessarily supporting Shas, moves in many of the same circles as those who do. All of this is duly making the papers and nightly news reports on a daily basis. That's certainly not the kind of press that the party would like to be receiving right now, especially after having just received authority over the revived Religious Affairs Ministry, having succeeded in convincing the government to expand the authority of the rabbinical courts in civil matters, and trying to make headway in the campaign to roll back the cuts that were made a few years ago in state child-allowance payments for large families. Shas wants to stay in the government badly at this point, and every headline that asks why it is still there certainly doesn't help that case. So rather than being continually asked why Shas hasn't abandoned the coalition, and what it would take to make that happen, MK Benizri would surely prefer being questioned by reporters on the linkage between gay sex and seismological activity. But as the negotiations with the Palestinians proceed and pressure builds on the party to quit the government, it may soon be that even the most outrageous statements from the lips of Shas MKs may not be enough to divert attention away from the growing fissures that may eventually shake it loose from the coalition. [email protected]