Shas Says Yes to Talks, but No to Declarations

Three weeks ago Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chatted briefly at a Jerusalem banquet hall during a bar mitzvah reception for Aharon Attias, son of Communications Minister Ariel Attias. What were they whispering about?

Shas politicians have been trying in recent weeks to come across as the ones rocking Olmert's boat, once as representatives of the political-security right flank ahead of the Annapolis peace conference, another time as representatives of the ultra-Orthodox camp.

The planned budget cuts for yeshivas and religious institutions are stretching ties between Kadima and Shas, to the point of a threatened rift. In the background, United Torah Judaism celebrates the chance to bash the Sephardic party - "partner to destroying the world of the Torah" - that even betrayed its constituency by not keeping its pledge to raise child allowances. Shas says its demands will ultimately be met, but its fears are growing amid increasing threats to quit by faction members.

What's the connection between the economic and political fronts? In the era of the Oslo Accords, peace agreements cost the government payouts to Shas institutions. Today it's unclear what it will take to buy the consent of the coalition partner, which comes across as a stubborn right-wing party alongside Yisrael Beiteinu.

"Shas old-timers can't remember the likes of this," a party activist said this week on the day party chief Eli Yishai went hand-in-hand with the right-wing Honenu group to the justice minister. He was bearing a list of 28 Jewish security prisoners he wants released if Palestinian prisoners are freed.

It was the latest in a series of moves by Yishai, who appears to be making the political-security topic his top priority. He met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try to persuade her to turn Annapolis into an economic conference, and made repeated threats in the media to quit if the core issues are discussed.

Shas has a history of opposing political concessions as members of governments left of Likud, and if Olmert returns from Annapolis with new commitments, Shas is unlikely to behave differently. Shas has been moving rightward for years, but the frequency of Yishai's pronouncements begs the question: What's up with Shas?

"If I don't let myself be dragged into concessions or misguided moves than suddenly I'm right wing?" Yishai said to Haaretz.

"I go by the issues. In a genuine peace process the Rabbi [Yosef] supports withdrawals, so my not supporting something populist makes me suspect? We object to gestures so long as the Palestinians do not disavow terror. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] cannot say he's the landlord for all Palestinians but not for terror. We need to stick to economic issues. Talk - yes; enter into binding declarations - certainly not."

Other Shas leaders toe the line, more or less, saying that reality has changed, not Shas. They point out that even Defense Minister Ehud Barak isn't wild about Annapolis.

"A pessimist is an optimist with experience," says a cabinet minister from Shas, Yitzhak Cohen. "I was and remain a pure-white dove, but disillusionment prevents me from marching across paper bridges."

Minister Attias says he is "very very much in favor of the conference. We constantly strive for peace and the conference will give moderates hope. But we must not be tempted by illusions. We are all graduates of Oslo. The most moderate already took a beating. You mustn't deal with the core."

In any case, one party leader "felt discomfitted" this week by Eli Yishai's cooperation with the right-wing Honenu organization, an affiliation Shas always avoided.

"Shas' public has always been on the right, even the strong right, but we never went with the extreme right," another activist said. He conjectured that Yishai's overtures to settlers are a nod to right-wing voters in poor towns.

One of Yishai's opponents offers a different interpretation, which he says also resolves the mystery of the Olmert-Ovadia chat. "The only thing that interests the Shas leadership today is appointing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's son [Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef] as Jerusalem's chief rabbi. All of Rabbi Ovadia's pressure on Olmert concerns this appointment," he says.