Shas Between Israel and Judea

All those who wanted to believe that despite everything, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a genuine partner for a peace agreement and the evacuation of settlements was disappointed this week.

All those who wanted to believe that despite everything, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a genuine partner for a peace agreement and the evacuation of settlements was disappointed this week. After all, he ruled years ago that territories can be given up "if the heads and commanders of the army, together with the members of the government, determine that it will save lives." What joy broke out in the left at the time. Everyone forgot his less sympathetic comments, like the prohibition against men to walk between two palms, two donkeys or two women.

Labor's elders remember how, in better times, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister and the Palestinians signed a peace agreement with Israel, there was friendship and even affection between Shas and the left. Reality was a bit less romantic: Rabin would call in his pal Aryeh Deri, and then show up at the rabbi's house with maps to explain and get a blessing. Haim Ramon, Yossi Sarid, and Deri cooked up a clever agreement at the Histadrut that opened all the doors to Shas, which has remained since in all the institutions the left quit, even becoming the publisher of Miyom Leyom, the workers' journal. At the Education Ministry, Meretz ministers nurtured the Shas school system to such an extent that even today it is remembered by Shas with nostalgia.

There was good reason for all that. Labor and Meretz understood that Shas represented a large segment of the population, mostly from the lowest socioeconomic strata, and to embrace the party and bring it into the system was the way to turn it into a peace process partner. During the prime ministerial election battle between Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, when Deri was already on his way to jail and Eli Yishai and Yosef were suffering insults from the Labor candidate and his representatives, the great split between the left and Shas began. Since then it has only deepened.

Despite all those known facts, and despite the Shas rabbi's openly expressed world view, which includes a measure of racism against Arabs, the declaration last week exalting and glorifying the settlers signals a dramatic turning away, seemingly unexplained, from the left's way. The only explanation to the sudden declaration isn't to be found in the torn fabric of the Shas-left relationship, but in the connection between Shas and itself, between a political party trying to survive and its voters.

Yosef's declaration stinks of election politics, and is aimed at several groups: Shas voters who dithered between the center and the right and like many were dragged to the right, Shas voters who live in the territories for economic reasons, and National Religious Party voters who did not find a home in a political and social culture in a party that has only one issue. NRP leader and Minister Effi Eitam's tongue lashing of Haredim sent them finally into the arms of Shas.

The left should not complain about the rabbi, who belatedly understood which way his voters want to go. All Israeli governments, including Barak's, spent the last few years dismantling the welfare state and expanding the settlements. Many families from the lowest socioeconomic strata found housing and education at reasonable prices, convenient transportation and social services, and even leisure culture and higher education - all in another land, the land of Judea. In their old country, those have all become less accessible.

Someone who grew up, for example, in Neve Ne'eman in Hod Hasharon, and wanted to live near their parents, bought an apartment in Karnei Shomron or Sha'arei Tikva, over the Green Line. That choice did not automatically make them members of Gush Emunim, but it did bring them gradually closer to the ideological spirit of the people of Judea and Samaria, and distanced them from the Israeli spirit. The phenomenon grew and spread, and now, of course, it encompasses the parents, who remained in the old neighborhood and pay a lot more for a lot less.

A political movement that wants to cut this Gordian knot tying together economic distress and the right cannot make do with vague talk of peace and hope, but must commit itself to much more - to the direct connection between evacuating the settlements and setting up a new social-economic order.