The New, or Old, Shas?

Eli Yishai is out at pubs saying he would appoint an Ashknezi as a minister. Could this be the beginning of a new Shas?

We haven't seen a campaign like this since Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to convince us of "the new Netanyahu." Eli Yishai is out at the pubs; Eli Yishai is declaring his intent to appoint an Ashkenazi professor as a minister on behalf of Shas; Eli Yishai is fighting corruption. There's no denying it: Eli Yishai is trying to convince the public that there's a new Shas in town - a moderate, honest and tolerant party. If this is the case, it is most welcome. The big question is whether it is all a ruse and Shas is simply the same old Shas.

This question is of paramount significance because Shinui is disappearing whereas Shas is expected to do well in the election. Shas had 11 seats in the outgoing Knesset; and the polls are currently giving the party 10 seats. But the surveys always underestimate its power. And as a result, Shas officials are convinced that the party is going to be the surprise package of the elections - and they are probably right. It's an expected surprise.

Shas' positive-image campaign has two principal objectives. One is to convince floating voters - particularly Likud voters who are disappointed with Netanyahu - that Shas is not a dark and corrupt party. To Shas' credit, it must be said that this is a far more positive campaign than the campaign of incitement waged in 1999 by Aryeh Deri against the judicial system and the elite.

The second objective of the new Shas' campaign concerns the coalition-building period after the elections. For the entire last Knesset, Shas held out and remained in the opposition; but for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Yishai, the option of not being a part of the next coalition is a nightmare. Yishai is trying to ease the concerns of secular Israelis who fear Shas' return to the government.

Shas officials reject claims that the campaign is mere spin, and argue that Yishai really does want a new Shas. This argument is strengthened by Yishai's statement in an interview with Haaretz Magazine that Shas does not want a halakhic state. Also encouraging is the party's declaration to the effect that any lawmaker who is indicted will be required to resign. As interior minister, I would allow secular burials, Yishai undertook last week. Even the spin regarding the appointment of Prof. Yochanan Steseman as health minister is holding up for now, and may just become a reality.

The problem is there are also a fair deal of signs indicating that we are dealing with the same package, but different wrapping. Shas' Knesset slate, for example, includes just one significant replacement: In comes Ariel Attias, the director general of Shas' kashrut authority, and out goes former health minister Nissim Dahan. On the other hand, Shlomo Benizri, awaiting an indictment on charges of receiving a bribe, and Yair Peretz, who admitted to plagiarizing an academic paper, remain on the list. And this cannot be readily termed cleaning out the stables.

Yishai may have been out at the pubs, but only to clarify that as far as he is concerned, such activities are part of a sick culture. His solution to the ills of secular society is to require state-governed schools to teach more Jewish studies. Yishai also said recently that homosexuals are sick individuals, and expressed hope that a remedy against homosexuality would be found (some six months ago, he said that homosexuals were "worse than animals").

Yishai's principal demand when it comes to the coalition negotiations will be the annulment of the cut to child allowances - one of the most significant achievements of the Ariel Sharon government.

The new-Shas campaign raises many questions. Did Shas learn a lesson from Shinui's success and the cries in Rabin Square of "anyone but Shas?" Does Yishai really mean what he is saying, or are his statements mere election promises? And if Yishai is serious about the new line, does he speak for Rabbi Yosef? And assuming both really mean it, will they not capitulate, as per usual, to pressure from the radical ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazis?

All will be revealed within six months. The problem is that if it turns out that Shas pulled the wool over the voters' eyes, we will have to live with the outcome for an entire Knesset.