Shas Leaders, Rabbis Visit Peres - but Not to Join Government

The political and rabbinic elite of Shas, nearly everyone from party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, plus ministers and party leaders and a few city chief rabbis, donned their festival best and turned out at the President's Residence in Jerusalem yesterday.

When the spiritual leader entered, the audience, mostly residents of Sderot, stood up and received him in song, while their host, President Shimon Peres, treated Rabbi Yosef as one would a king.

The Shas ministers strode around the garden of the President's Residence like grooms on their wedding day. Will they meet here again for the group picture of the new Livni cabinet, if and when it is formed?

"The way it looks now, no," Shas chairman Eli Yishai said after the ceremony, sounding more decisive than ever. Shas came to the President's Residence to participate in the presentation to Peres of a new Torah scroll, which was donated to the synagogue at the President's Residence by a well-known Sderot contractor, Moshe Peretz. The scroll was dedicated in the memory of Sderot resident Oshri Oz, who was killed by a Qassam rocket.

Shas also came to honor the president, and maybe also itself. But yesterday's gathering hardly hinted that Shas would be joining a Livni government. Quite the opposite seemed to be true. Rabbi Yosef and ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias came to the ceremony directly from a meeting at the rabbi's home, where they heard that the differences between Shas' positions and that of prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni's Kadima were very far apart, maybe too far apart to be bridged.

Rabbi Yosef instructed the Shas negotiators who are talking with Kadima, Prof. Yohanan Stessman and attorney David Glass, to keep firmly to their red lines, first and foremost, on child allowances. He said there was no point in even discussing the NIS 400 million Kadima offered.

"There are large differences, and no progress," Yishai told reporters yesterday morning.

Shas leaders seemed only to strengthen their belief yesterday that Livni could not provide what they wanted, even if she wanted to. Shas ministers have been speaking of a personal campaign against them over the past two weeks by Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, one that even was against Rabbi Yosef.

As far as Yosef is concerned, Shimon Peres, whom he "crowned" as president a year and a half ago, is no longer identified with Kadima; and as far as Peres is concerned, his respect for Rabbi Yosef is boundless. If only Peres had given himself the job of forming a new government instead of Livni, Shas apparently would have been much happier and had an easier time, too.