Despite PM's pressure, Shas holds out for US letter

Party could tip the scales against second moratorium if it chooses not to abstain in security cabinet vote.

Eli Yishai (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eli Yishai
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With pressure running high on Shas to take a strong stance against a proposed West Bank building moratorium, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called two key Shas ministers in for an urgent briefing Wednesday, but the meeting ended without the assurances that the prime minister hoped to receive.
Amid reports in recent days of American reluctance to draft a written commitment that would guarantee that this 90-day freeze would be the last one, and that it would not include Jerusalem as part of the moratorium, Netanyahu called in Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias for a brief meeting. In an attempt to shore up support for the freeze, Netanyahu and Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, who had been representing Jerusalem in the most recent Israeli-Palestinian talks – which came to a halt in October – spoke with the two Shas ministers, who both hold key votes in the diplomatic-security cabinet.

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Shas has announced that it will either abstain from the vote or oppose the initiative.
Shas’s abstention will only come, Attias and Yishai have reiterated, on the condition that Netanyahu can deliver written commitments from the Americans that building in the West Bank will resume after the freeze; and that building in Jerusalem will continue uninterrupted in the course of the threemonth- long moratorium.
On Wednesday, sources close to the prime minister attempted to backtrack on a written commitment mentioning Jerusalem, arguing instead that it was sufficient that the proposed freeze be described as an extension of the earlier 10-month freeze, which did not include Jerusalem.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the Shas ministers reiterated that without a letter of commitment from the Americans, they would oppose the freeze. Shas’s abstention on the cabinet vote is critical to the vote’s success – with the current balance of power in the cabinet, a Shas abstention would mean that the proposal would pass 7-6, but votes against would shift the balance against the freeze.
In the meantime, right-wing activists are trying to maintain pressure on Shas, with the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel appealing to the Supreme Court to permit them to demonstrate outside Shas officials’ houses.
Within Likud, efforts also continued to force fence-sitting MKs and ministers to take a side for or against the freeze. The letter drafted Tuesday, in which Likud MKs called on Netanyahu to uphold his promise that building would resume uninterrupted following the end of the first building freeze in late September, garnered the signatures of over half of the ruling party’s faction.
Fourteen MKs and ministers, including Minister-Without- Portfolio Bennie Begin, Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, as well as deputy ministers Ayoub Kara, Gila Gamliel and Leah Nass signed the draft.
MK Danny Danon (Likud), in the US on a visit planned in advance of Netanyahu’s Saturday announcement regarding the freeze proposal, turned to American Jews and politicians to try to enlist assistance in opposing any additional moratorium.
“We are asking members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to ask to see the letter, and to question the budgetary implications,” said Danon, who also plans to contact known American donors who have subsidized Netanyahu’s political efforts in the past.
“The strategy is for Netanyahu to have to answer Eli Yishai’s questions in the morning, and questions from Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York in the evening,” Danon added.