PM to cave in to Shas on Jerusalem

After Israel Beiteinu's departure, Shas remains the only right-wing party left in Olmert's coalition.

eli yishai 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
eli yishai 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to accept Shas's demand that negotiations on the fate of Jerusalem be set aside until the end of the Annapolis diplomatic process, Shas sources said following conversations with the Prime Minister's Office. Israel Beiteinu's departure from the coalition on Wednesday left the coalition with a fragile 67 MKs and made the 12-member Shas faction the only right-wing party in the government. Shas chairman Eli Yishai called cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel and requested a meeting with Olmert on Sunday, following Yishai's return from China, to clarify Olmert's views on dividing Jerusalem. Olmert's associates relayed messages to Yishai and to Communications Minister Ariel Attias that negotiations with the Palestinians on Jerusalem would proceed at a much slower pace than other core issues of the conflict. They asked Attias to forward the messages to Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Yosef issued a new directive Tuesday that the party would leave the government as soon as serious negotiations began on the fate of Jerusalem. Attias said Olmert would take the threat seriously. "Olmert is not an idiot," Attias said. "He will leave the Jerusalem issue until the end of the negotiations because of us, and we will make sure he never gets there. As long as we are in the government, Jerusalem will not be negotiated. We will go to the next elections as the defenders of Jerusalem." Shas officials said the party could remain in the government for an extended period as long as the Jerusalem issue was not negotiated and no concrete agreement was reached on the other core issues of the conflict, such as refugees and the final borders of a Palestinian state. "Negotiations on the core issues have started, and we haven't left," Attias said. "Now that Israel Beiteinu is gone, our job is to put the brakes on dividing Jerusalem. We will check on an ongoing basis whether Jerusalem is on the table." Yishai will ask Olmert at the meeting whether he intends to try to add United Torah Judaism or Meretz to the coalition. Yishai's associates said the party had no problem with sitting in a coalition with Meretz as it did in the past. Kadima sources said Olmert was leaning toward pursuing UTJ, even though he was worried about the party's steep asking price. At least until the Winograd Report is published January 30, Olmert intends to keep the portfolios that will become available when Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch's resignations take effect on Friday. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said that without Israel Beiteinu, Olmert would have to shift Kadima rightward to compensate. He urged Olmert to clarify the party's red lines against dividing Jerusalem. "Kadima requires balance, and now the balance has been harmed," Schneller said. "We need to add UTJ, because a plane with one wing crashes." Olmert's spokesman said he had not yet decided whether to try to expand the coalition. Olmert's enemies in Kadima said that if he did not expand the coalition after Israel Beiteinu's departure, it would be much easier to topple him after Winograd's release. The Likud expressed its appreciation to Lieberman for quitting and called upon Shas to follow suit so that it wouldn't be a bridge toward dividing Jerusalem and returning Israel to indefensible borders. Likud MK Silvan Shalom called Lieberman's departure "the beginning of the end of Olmert's government," while fellow Likud MK Yuval Steinitz said Shas was fooling itself by announcing that it would remain in the government in order to defend Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is being cut to shreds on the negotiating table, and Shas will ultimately be responsible for the loss of the Western Wall," Steinitz said.