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The coalition negotiations find Shas in a peculiar position. After four years, for the first time, it is not the third largest party. In 1999, after a very personal election campaign, which ended with Ehud Barak's victory over Benjamin Netanyahu, Shas found itself, almost by accident, with 17 seats in the Knesset. Aryeh Deri, who was depicted as a persecuted victim representing the traditional Sephardi, was carried into office by 400,000 protest voters.

The other side of that protest rang out a few days later when tens of thousands of Barak supporters greeted him at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, with rhythmic chanting of "Just not Shas." But Shas's political strength was too great, and Barak, who would have preferred not to bring them into the coalition, ended up giving them the Interior, Welfare, Health and Religious Affairs ministries (he didn't dare break up the latter).

His party, Labor, has long since given up even a declared interest in those ministries, which are responsible for the lives, welfare and civil rights of Israeli citizens, and it handed over the complex fabric of religion-state relations to a Shas-run Religious Affairs Ministry and the opposition from Shinui. In 2001, when Sharon formed the unity government, he wasn't enthusiastic about Shas, but was forced to include it in the coalition.

Sharon feels an authentic commitment to United Torah Judaism. In his eyes, they are continuing the traditions of his forgotten forefathers in Russia and Poland. Their campaign slogan, "Your child is Jewish, but what about your grandchild?" speaks deeply to him. Shas voters, with their Sephardi rabbis, amulets and graves of saints, and all the other evidence that appears to him as folklore, could integrate very nicely inside the Likud.

Sharon would therefore prefer a government with the Ashkenazi Haredim, and without Shas. Shinui Chairman Yosef Lapid also is suddenly ready to forget his statements about military service and equal sharing of the burden, as long as it's "Just not Shas."

Lapid isn't surprising. On the contrary. He's even consistent. Fist of al, he always says he despises everything that smacks of what he calls "Levantine culture." Secondly, one can understand how UTJ, which never asked for a ministry portfolio (their representatives are always deputy ministers), and which has long-standing reservations about taking part in government, is much less threatening to him than Shas, with its mysterious and always surprising strength, and which always demands a large portion of the government and influence.

In less politically correct terms, Shas scares everyone because it combines Orientalism with religion, because many of its activists are fanatically newly Orthodox, and because its rabbis, with their grass-roots popularity, influence a large constituency, which is traditional and even secular. Who, from either the center of the country or its periphery, has ever watched on TV an inspirational sermon by the Vizhnitz Rebbe, for example, or one by Rabbi Steinman from Bnei Brak?

Eli Yishai, Shas's chairman, called Lapid a "racist" and wasn't so wrong. However, Yishai also has to understand that a very large secular public, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and mixed together, which isn't tainted by ethnic prejudice or detestation of religion and the religious, is very worried - indeed frightened - by Shas.

Two sides are to blame for this. The first is the left, which, detesting Shas and its voters, shoved them into insult and rage, instead of integrating them with calming conciliation. The second is Yishai and those who surround him. During the last four years they were deep inside the establishment, fattening themselves on its cream, and neglected both their voters and the secular middle class. Instead of consolidating the social services network, it opened soup kitchens. Instead of offering a pleasant Oriental alternative to the rigid Orthodoxy of the Ashkenazim, they became ever more Haredi, banging the Jewish hammer over and over. The result - a sweeping vote for Shinui and a significant weakening of Shas in the major cities and other population centers.

During the election campaign, Yishai crossed all the lines. His hidden campaign adviser imported from France the rightist-zealot Breslau Orthodoxy, and Shas changed from being a broad popular party to a community of the newly Orthodox, closed ranks, with fear of the goyim, around a charismatic rabbi. Shas has never appeared so isolationist, fanatic and brutal. And now it's apparently weak.

If Shas is forced into opposition, it could develop an enraged and destructive force, which would even further sabotage relations between the religious and secular in Israel. If it goes back to the government, Yishai can reconsider anew whom he represents. Deri isn't there any more. Now it's up to Yishai and his rabbi to decide if they are abandoning the future of the soldiers who voted Shas for the sake of the bearded extremists.