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Last week the chairman of Shas, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, hastened to convene the managers of the pirate radio stations that are associated with the party. He ordered them to join the party's election campaign. It is not by chance that he was in a hurry. In two weeks time the prohibition on radio and television election campaigning will come into effect; Shas is interested in taking advantage of the remaining time for particularly aggressive campaigning.

Between election campaigns the pirate stations function as the long arm of the ultra-Orthodox mission, a particularly effective means of gaining "converts" to religious observance. During election campaigns, however, they become the party's public address system. The director of one of the stations related after the 1999 elections that "over the radio we organized the establishment of local headquarters. Within a single day we recruited 1,800 volunteers and 300 vehicles on the air." A report by Keshev, The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, finds that this illegal advantage was one of the important factors in the 17 Knesset seats won by Shas.

But the stations did not only operate for the benefit of Shas. They rebroadcast, again and again, an interview they held with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he warned listeners of the possibility that leftists would rule over them. On one of the stations a rabbi named Eliyahu Bar-Shalom reported on what was going on in heaven: "There is a terrible war raging between the powers of holiness and the powers of defilement. The outcome will be determined by a single vote. You must choose where you belong." Two pirate stations even called explicitly for election fraud. One broadcaster called for fulfilling the religious obligation of voting for Shas "abundantly" - i.e. several times - and another called upon listeners to remove from the voting booth ballot slips for secular parties and replace them with slips for Shas and Netanyahu.

After the elections the stations embarked on a campaign of incitement and threats. Among other things, a broadcaster on Kol Haneshama exhorted listeners to take up arms against leftists and against the justices of the Supreme Court and declared: "If we need to slaughter, we shall slaughter, and if we must be slaughtered, we shall be slaughtered ..."

In the campaign for prime minister in 2001, the pirate stations constantly broadcast Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's view of prime minister Ehud Barak: "He is a hater of Israel. This is evil. Everyone has to influence his relatives and acquaintances to vote for the opposing candidate, so that Barak will fall and not rise again."

During that same campaign Keshev chalked up a series of legal victories in its struggle to neutralize the Shas public address system. Initially the stations simply ignored the order by the chairman of the Central Elections Commission, Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin, who prohibited them from broadcasting campaign material. But Cheshin's threat to put the station managers under administrative detention forced Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to issue a statement in which he called for "refraining from any campaigning on the sacred radio stations and acting in accordance with the regulations and laws of campaigning." The executive director of Keshev, Yizhar Be'er, notes with satisfaction that this was one of the few times Rabbi Yosef bowed his head to the rule of law and not the other way around.

Cheshin did not rely only on voluntary compliance by the heads of the radio stations. On Election Day he ordered the police to cut off the Shas stations that were hooked up to the Bezeq company's satellite transmitter in the Eyla Valley. As a result, these stations did not broadcast at all on Election Day.

It is a bit difficult to remember, but just two and a half years ago Israel was governed by Ehud Barak's leftist government, and one of the issues that threatened to bring it down was the demand by Shas to make the pirate radio stations legal. For nearly two years, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has been in power, and Shas is considered to be a key partner in it. If during this period anyone in Shas has demanded that these radio stations be made legal, he has done so with great delicacy and courtesy. A threat? A coalition crisis? These means have been off the agenda, apparently because of the fear that the demand will be granted.

The problem for Shas and the pirate stations is that in the negotiations during the summer of 2000 it became clear that there is no way of making the stations legal without setting up a regulatory council and making it subordinate to the broadcast rules that apply in states where law and order prevail. Regulation is the last thing that Shas and its stations want, as then the party communications system would be neutralized and the channels for incitement would be blocked.

Grumbling about the non-legalization of the pirate stations is still heard from time to time in the ultra-Orthodox media, but this is mainly in order to preserve the image of the stations as persecuted and oppressed. In addition, Shas cannot admit that in fact, it is far more convenient to have illegal stations.

The problem currently facing Shas is that Justice Cheshin, who has already proved that he cannot be messed with, is still serving as chairman of the Central Elections Commission. Now they are trying to puzzle out where Cheshin draws the line. Among other things Shas intends to use the pirate stations to conduct a campaign to sell letters in a Torah scroll, on the grounds that this is a religious matter and not part of an election campaign. In effect this is a campaign to collect names and addresses of potential Shas supporters. But experience shows that the broadcasters on the pirate stations in any case will not restrain themselves and will slip into direct campaigning. Thus, Yitzhak Be'er of Keshev and representatives of Shas can expect many meetings at Cheshin's chambers before January 28.