Eli Yishai Looks to Washington to Free Him From Settlement Freeze Trap

No one seems to be pleased with the Shas chairman, who is finding himself besieged by rightists, Americans and his very own party.

All of Eli Yishai's prayers this week were directed westward, toward Washington. The Shas chairman, who for years has tried to position himself as one of the vanguards of the rightist camp in Israel, came to the realization that either U.S. President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are the only ones likely to extricate him from the settlement freeze trap in which he finds himself.

Assuming Likud falls in line, the only thing that would free Shas from providing the necessary majority for a new settlement freeze is an American rejection of the party's demands in exchange for its abstention in the cabinet - namely the exclusion of Jerusalem from the freeze order.

Eli Yishai, Tess Scheflan
Tess Scheflan

Shas has always strived to be the cabinet's swing vote. But with that power, he is now also facing pressure from the right.

Yishai could hang his hopes on the Likud rebels - including ministers Benny Begin and Limor Livnat - but Netanyahu is not the only one faced with mutiny from within. For there is no more fierce rebellion than the one currently being waged against Yishai by Shas MK Chaim Amsellem.

The enmity reached a fever pitch this week, when Amsellem called the Shas party chairman "a dictator" who was orchestrating "a witch hunt" against him by disseminating "lies."

He also accused Yishai of kowtowing the Sephardic party to the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox establishment. Amsellem concluded that he had no intention of vacating his Knesset seat for the party's benefit. What is likely to annoy Yishai most is the sympathetic coverage Amsellem is getting in the religious press.

While Amsellem dented Yishai's reputation as the undisputed leader of the Shas faction, Obama (or Netanyahu ) managed to undermine his image as a right-wing ideologue. In both instances, Yishai has been forced to keep quiet. If he were to surrender to his baser instincts, he would obliterate Amsellem in public while declaring a lightning-quick construction frenzy in uninhabited areas beyond the Green Line. Instead, he must sit quiet with the understanding that the price he is liable to pay could be atrophy.

Even more bothersome than Amsellem is the discord between Yishai and the country's right wing, which threatens to undo the Shas chairman's years-long effort to present himself as the darling of the settlers.

Shas officials who hold opinions to the left of Yishai claim that he is now paying a steep price for his rightist proclamations of years past.

Shas officials are aware that Netanyahu's failure to maintain his government would thwart Shas' plans in other areas, including the naming of spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's son to be chief rabbi of Jerusalem before the end of the current Knesset term.

While Yosef opposes the settlement freeze, his aides said that he prefers a government that freezes construction over the chilliness of sitting in the opposition.

The rabbi, aides said, "will not allow Eli Yishai to quit even if Netanyahu announces that he is handing over the Western Wall to the Palestinians."