Hostages at Safra Square

Shas councillors wanted to quit the coalition but were ordered to stay put due to wheeling and dealing over appointment of the city's chief rabbis.

kikar safra 224 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
kikar safra 224 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On the sidelines of the Kikar Safra parking lot drama, Nir Barkat almost found his coalition breaking up last week and from an unexpected direction. Shas officials told The Jerusalem Post that the mayor's decision to open the parking lot on Shabbat had taken them by surprise and that they had considered quitting the coalition as a result. "He didn't consult us, he only consulted with the Ashkenazi haredim in the coalition who, in any event, turned out not to be such great advisers," a Shas city councillor told The Jerusalem Post. As a result, the councillor and the three other members of the Shas party at city hall decided that the time was ripe for them to leave the coalition. "The coalition doesn't really serve our constituency nor us personally, since we didn't get even one deputy mayor nomination," the councillor added. But then the four discovered that things were not so simple. With regard to the parking issue, the Shas representatives found themselves in a very uncomfortable position. "All the decisions were made as if Shabbat issues were not part of the Sephardi haredim's field of interest, and it was very embarrassing for us to face our constituency on this matter," explained the city councillor. But there's more. The two haredi parties shrank after the last elections. United Torah Judaism went down from 10 representatives to eight, and Shas from five to four. But for some reason and despite the fact that Mayor Barkat invited the two parties to join him, only the Ashkenazi haredi party obtained the position of deputy mayor (including the nice salary that goes with it - regular councillors do not receive a salary), while the Shasniks had to make do with a few second-tier portfolios. At first Shlomo Attias, the leader of the Shas party, said he believed that within a short time the government would approve a special status for the capital and allow a seventh deputy mayor. This eventuality became even more probable when Binyamin Netanyahu formed his government three months later and gave the Interior Ministry - the office in charge of the local and regional councils - to the Shas chairman, Eli Yishai. But for reasons that remain unclear, the eagerly anticipated decision didn't come and Attias, father of nine children, remained very busy at Kikar Safra (he is in charge of the welfare portfolio, a full-time job in Jerusalem's municipality) but still as an unsalaried official. And so the resentment rose as the Shasniks began to realize that once again they had been superseded by their Ashkenazi counterparts. "The situation became ripe for a departure from this coalition, from which we did not receive any benefits," admitted the city councillor. The eruption of the riots in protest to the opening of the parking lot was taken as the best opportunity available for the members of the Shas party. Not only could they get rid of the (unpaid) burden, but they could even present it as their part of the holy war in defense of Shabbat and regain some respectability among their constituency. Last Wednesday the secret meeting of the four ended in a bold decision to leave the coalition. But then a message came, directly from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's chambers, ordering them to cancel any plans for going independent and to stick with Barkat. For the Shasniks on the city council it was not so difficult to understand what lay behind the stern request. "We have been turned into hostages," said one of them sadly. "There is a not-so-secret agreement between Mayor Barkat and Rabbi Yosef regarding the upcoming elections for the city's chief rabbis. In return for Barkat's support of Yosef's son's candidacy, Shas representatives have promised to support the election of a religious Zionist Ashkenazi chief rabbi. And we, the party of the coalition on the city council, are the hostages of this agreement," concluded the city councillor.