Shas to stay in government despite talks

Likud urges Shas to leave government; Yishai: Israel must not abandon Golan Heights to "axis of evil."

Golan 224.88 (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Golan 224.88
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced on Wednesday that he would keep his party in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition despite the revelation from the Prime Minister's Office that the government had been carrying out secret talks with Syria. Olmert called Yishai moments before a message was sent to reporters to inform him about the talks. Yishai's associates said the news caught him by surprise and that he would have preferred not to hear such news at all. "It is forbidden to negotiate with the axis of evil and certainly to abandon the Golan to the axis of evil," Yishai told reporters. "At the moment when we see that there is real danger of giving the Golan to the axis of evil, Shas, of course, won't be in the government. We are constantly evaluating whether we should remain in the government." Within minutes of Olmert's announcement, opposition MKs sprang into action, trying to find a blocking action that would prevent negotiators from committing to any return of the Golan Heights. The Likud called upon Shas to leave the coalition immediately and bring down Olmert's government. Likud faction Chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar warned that Olmert "doesn't have a majority for making concessions on the Golan - not in the Knesset and not among the public." Sa'ar and Israel Beiteinu submitted no-confidence motions. "The prime minister and the president of Syria must thoroughly understand that there is a clear Knesset majority against an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan," said MK Yisrael Katz (Likud), the head of the Knesset's Golan Lobby. "More than 61 MKs signed a petition against relinquishing the Golan and they won't allow the prime minister to continue the process." In the past, the Knesset has attempted legislation that would prevent returning the Golan without a public referendum. A 1999 law went so far as to rule that a referendum was necessary, but qualified the statement with a clause that it would only be relevant once a Basic Law for Public Referenda was passed - and that law still does not exist. Former MK Avigdor Yitzhaki then tried to pass legislation that would change the problematic clause of the 1999 law. Yitzhaki's law passed its preliminary reading a few months ago, but Yitzhaki has since left the Knesset and he said Wednesday that he did not believe that further readings would see the light of day. MK Eliyahu Gabbai (National Union-National Religious Party) declared, in the wake of Olmert's announcement, that he would try to pick up where Yitzhaki's bill left off. Gabbai said that he had already gathered 57 signatures "from all the parties" in favor of a law proposal "to anchor the Golan Heights." Gabbai's proposal would require an 80-vote majority in the Knesset to give up any part of the heights. Many in the opposition drew links between the timing of the announcement and the lifting of the gag order against the investigation into Olmert's alleged corruption. "The announcement that was made by the Prime Minister's Office is the corrupt spin of a man who is well-known to police investigators, constructed in an attempt to get the law enforcement system and the media off his back," said MK Aryeh Eldad (NU-NRP), who heads the Knesset's anti-corruption lobby. "Olmert is certain that if Sharon was saved from trial because of Disengagement, he, too will be saved from being removed from office through treason against the State of Israel and offering up the Golan Heights to a person who planned on preparing nuclear weapons to use against us and who operates Hizbullah and Hamas." Likud MK Gilad Erdan charged that "Olmert has finally proven that he is willing to sell everything, including Israel's security, in order to cause us to forget the severe criminal offenses that he suspected of." Former foreign minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) said in response to the announcement that "this will not allow Olmert to be safeguarded from the investigations against him." But not all the opposition voices were negative. Meretz and Labor MKs congratulated the announcement, although Meretz faction chair Zehava Gal-On expressed her concern that the announcements - or the negotiations themselves - could be merely a diversionary tactic. Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor) declared her support for the endeavor, arguing that negotiations with Syria "can stabilize peace in the region." "We must break the Iranian-Syrian axis and arrive at a comprehensive peace agreement with the Syrians in exchange for a withdrawal from the Golan."