For anyone still stuck in the recent election campaign, in which Shas waved both the banner of Jewish heritage (with the infamous “For conversion, press star” ad) and the social-justice banner (with their slogan, “We’re for the have-nots”), it's time to wake up.
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With all due respect to the social-justice issue, the party will hoist only one flag – the ultra-Orthodox one – to the top in coalition talks expected to start officially this week. The issue of military exemptions for men engaged in full-time Torah study will undoubtedly be the most pressing on the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party’s agenda. It will preoccupy its three chairmen – Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias – who are representing it at the talks, along with Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, newspapers affiliated with Shas and all the other ultra-Orthodox publications, morning, noon and night. All the other issues will just have to wait.
On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government he is going to form will work to share the burden more equally "without creating a rift in the nation.” Today, the sloganeering ends and real negotiations over the most important issue to the ultra-Orthodox parties begin in earnest.
In recent days, Yishai told the media that his party would forego positions in the next government if only "to prevent harm to the yeshiva world.” The message here is that Shas would set aside its fierce desire to be part of the coalition in favor of the ideological issue of military exemptions. Netanyahu heard the same message in his talks with Shas this past Friday evening, before the start of the Sabbath.
Shas is making it clear that, as things stand, it is most likely headed to the opposition for the first time since 2003. Is this a ploy? Perhaps, but maybe not. The leaders of Shas feel that the gap between them and Yair Lapid is unbridgeable. Therefore, even when the prime minister states his wishes for a broad government, Shas worries that Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, has made a strategic decision to drag Netanyahu into a Shas-less government. Political analysts generally say that Shas would join the coalition at any cost. Past experience certainly supports this, but the question of the yeshivas is more complex, especially for Shas, because it touches on the very core of ultra-Orthodoxy. It also puts Shas’ relations with United Torah Judaism to the test and – worse still – pits Rabbi Ovadia Yosef against the Ashkenazi Torah sages.
Will Shas take the lead on this issue, or will it be dragged behind the stricter Ashkenazi line on yeshiva study? Will it be able to deconstruct the Rabbi Yosef sent to President Shimon Peres last Thursday, according to which “it is necessary to conduct negotiations with utmost seriousness and find suitable solutions for full-time Torah scholars”? Shas is signaling that it is willing to talk and resolve the issue, but it’s only the start.
Another set of relations is also about to be put to the test – those within Shas’ leading triumvirate. The level of mutual goodwill among the three is low going into negotiations. It’s not entirely clear who’s conducting the talks and it’s hard to imagine any of the three moving over to accommodate the other two. Will anyone be given a senior position? And who’s in second place? Shas is sniffing out the opposition. And the opposition can at least take comfort from the fact that it has no jobs to hand out.