Taking on Key Player Shas, Sharon Snatches Victory From Jaws of Debacle - but at What Price?

Summarily firing the cabinet ministers of the powerful, controversial Shas party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pulled the rabbit of a political triumph out of a tattered hat - but no one knows the politics of vengeance like Shas.

Summarily firing the cabinet ministers of the powerful, controversial Shas party, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pulled the rabbit of a political triumph out of the tattered hat of what seemed to be an ignominious defeat, burnishing his popular image as his own man.

But if he does not go back on his decision, it may yet come back to haunt him, as no one practices the politics of revenge better than Shas.

The politically savvy Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party has traditionally played governments like a Stradivarius, parlaying its tie-breaker role in the Israeli political spectrum to bend far-reaching concessions from prime ministers unable to rule without Shas' crucial votes. This despite having lost their premiere soloist, Aryeh Deri, who remains in jail on a range of corruption convictions.

Shas power has grown by geometric leaps in recent elections, propelled by a law that allowed voters to choose the candidate of a large party for prime minister, while voting with regard to more sectarian interests in separate balloting for allocation of Knesset seats. From an also-ran, four-seat contingent in the 1980s, the party took enough votes from the Likud, the National Religious Party and other factions in 1999 to capture 17 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Had Shas secured only a few more votes, it would have tied the Likud as the second-largest party in Israel.

Of late, however, Shas leaders have been rocked by a series of setbacks and foreboding omens. After Shas leader Eli Yishai poured massive efforts into a city council election in the blue-collar Tel Aviv suburb of Lod this month, the party actually lost strength, losing one of its three seats on the council. The Lod campaign and the firings have made Yishai appear, in the words of one commentator, like a political rookie, spurring talk of splits within the party between loyalists of the current chairman and disciples of his predecessor, jailed former king-maker Aryeh Deri.

More ominously, pollsters have shown a continuing migration of voters from Shas back to the Likud. There is reason to believe that the Likud's apparent newfound popularity is a function of Sharon's own approval rating, which opinion polls published Wednesday gauged at between 62 and 70 percent - unheard-of figures for a standing prime minister.

Shas may also suffer from the surprise that ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu received at Sharon's hand earlier this month. Going on the attack against Likud chief Sharon, who he hinted was soft on terrorism, Netanyahu scored a technical victory in the party vote against Sharon. However, polls later showed that the prime minister had come out the victor among the general electorate.

Playing on his role as a wartime leader, Sharon has repeatedly declared that he will continue to place Israel's interests over any others, no matter what Shas, Netanyahu, the United Nations, or even the White House may say.

Nonetheless, Sharon's popularity may be short-lived among a notoriously fickle electorate. The expected departure of Shas' 17 mandates leaves him with the barest of Knesset margins, just 60 votes. His apparent options, in that event, are: opting for early elections - a decision which led to the defeats of his three immediate predecessors; expanding his government by incorporating parties like the secular Shinui; or trying to reach a quiet reconciliation with Shas.

If anyone in Israeli politics is going to seek to bring down the high-flying incumbent prime minister, a Shas leader with much to prove is a likely candidate.

In a combative mood prior to the Wednesday vote, Health Minister Nissim Dahan said Shas leadership Monday had fully expected a strong reaction from Sharon, whom Dahan termed "a military general who never caught a shell without responding with two of his own."

Dahan cautioned against making too much of the support Sharon has garnered in taking on Shas. "Regrettably, every time the public sees that they're beating up on the ultra-Orthodox, the 'parasites' as the media always pictures us, there'll be a big majority that'll be happy," Dahan told Army Radio just before the Wednesday vote, quickly adding: "In the end, however, it will be the minority that decides."

The chance that Sharon will strike a genuine divorce with Shas is very low," concludes Ha'aretz commentator Akiva Eldar. "Even if the elections are held as scheduled in the end of 2003, Sharon will need Shas, so he doesn't want to push them too far. But Sharon's problem is that it's difficult for him to get out of the game at his high point, like a gambler who wins and wins but doesn't know when to quit.

"This happens to him time after time, in the diplomatic sphere as well. In the military realm, he succeeds in landing blows, he wins, but he doesn't know when to pull out. His appetite is too big."