Ovadia Yosef, right, with Shimon Peres.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, with President Shimon Peres. Photo by Kobi Gideon
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Olivier Fitoussi
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his office in Jerusalem. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has suddenly emerged as the one Israeli who can decide whether or not his country will go to war. Along with President Shimon Peres he could be the most significant obstacle to Netanyahu and Barak.

Shas’ spiritual leader is not exactly known for his tolerance towards Israel’s neighbors. In a public sermon in 2001 he called Arabs “snakes” and “ants” and said.

"It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable."

He tried later to explain himself in an interview with Arabic newspapers where he called for peaceful coexistence and said that his words had been directed at "Those low-lifes who were responsible for shedding the blood of Israelis.”

At best the attitude to war and peace of the venerable sage who ruled in the 1970s that the sanctity of life was more important than preserving the completeness of the land of Israel has been ambiguous. His political representatives have nearly always taken hawkish positions in every coalition and can generally be trusted to vote with the pro-settler lobby. Despite this, David Glass, Ovadia’s veteran advisor, wily lawyer and former leader of the now defunct left-wing faction of NRP is still convinced that ”come the moment of truth, Rav Ovadia will support peace and order his MKs to vote accordingly.”

Glass can rightly point to one instance in 1991 when his rabbi did indeed play a major role in the efforts to stop Israel from going to war.

Twenty-four hours after Iraqi Scud missiles had been fired on the suburbs of Tel-Aviv shortly following the start of Operation Desert Storm, preparations were underway for retaliation despite American demands that Israel holds it fire and allow the international coalition to act instead. Plans ranged from pinpoint strikes against missile launchers to landing an entire airborne in the west Iraqi desert.

The previous political leader of Shas, Arieh Deri, related his doubts to the rabbi who ordered him to drive on Shabbat to the critical cabinet meeting in Tel-Aviv. Once there, despite being the youngest minister with the least security experience, he lead the skeptical camp, closely questioning air-force generals until a majority of ministers opposed military action.

The procession of security experts arriving at the rabbi's apartment in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighbourhood over the last few days, to argue for and against an Israeli strike on Iran, included as was revealed yesterday National Security Council head, Yaakov Amidror, sent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi is anxious that should he bring the matter to a vote in cabinet, the rabbi’s men will not stage a similar performance to Deri’s on Saturday, January 19, 1991.

Circumstances are eerily similar. The defence and political establishments are split over the wisdom of an Israeli operation and the American administration is putting massive pressure on the government to trust it to carry out the mission.

Ovadia has yet to make his views known but has been reported to be against a unilateral strike – it contains two elements he is adverse to; endangering Israeli lives and angering the Americans. Did Amidror manage to sway him with new information on Iran’s progress towards nuclear capability? The issue is certainly fresh in his mind, last Saturday night he said to his followers that “you all know what situation we are in, there are evil people, Iran, who plan to destroy us” and exhorted them –

“We are in danger, all of us, we must multiply our prayers, we have no-one to trust besides are father in the heavens.”

This contains no indication of whom the rabbi would prefer to see as the tool of heavenly intervention – Obama or Netanyahu?

The prime minister’s emissaries will have a very difficult job convincing Ovadia that the risks of an operation are worth taking. While hardly a pacifist, one of his most defining experiences was reviewing the personnel files of over a thousand married IDF soldiers killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As Chief Rabbi at the time, he expedited the halachic process of releasing the young widows from their agunah status, allowing them to properly mourn and the possibility of remarriage. Reading the accounts of burnt and twisted bodies touched him deeply and formed his view that war should be prevented at all costs.

It is a certainty that the Obama administration will send its own messengers to the Rabbi who speaks no English. Shas political leader Eli Yishai is currently in the U.S. and will be meeting with officials who are very aware that he may be the pivotal vote in the inner cabinet of eight when the hour comes. Of course Shas is only the third-largest party in the coalition and Netanyahu can go ahead even if its ministers vote against. But if Rabbi Ovadia, who will turn 92 in a month remains opposed, there is an intriguing possible alliance between the two grand old men of Israeli politics.

President Shimon Peres has already shown his hand, in an interview last week urging against Israel going it alone. A joint Peres-Ovadia front, uniting the two old friends, may prove to be the only barrier insurmountable to the Bibi-Barak duo.