Tel Aviv — As Israel makes decisions about the peace process over the coming weeks, all eyes are turning to the Sephardic-based Shas party, seen as holding the fulcrum of power to decide the country’s response to the Obama administration’s proposal for restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
With two ministers in the Cabinet, and a bloc of 10 out of 120 Knesset members, the religious party, founded by the now aged Sephardic spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is the only faction in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition whose position is not known on the question confronting the government: whether to accept Washington’s offer of a package of political and strategic military benefits in exchange for renewing a freeze on settlement expansion in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for 90 days.
The party’s decision on the issue will either give Netanyahu a majority within his coalition for accepting the offer — which Washington believes is essential to bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table — or deny him that. Netanyahu is pushing for Israel to accept America’s offer.
Based on the hawkish views of its main constituency — Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries, and their descendants — Shas’s rejection of America’s proposal might appear to be a given. But Ira Sharkansky, emeritus professor of political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cautioned, “Shas is not at all the simple right-wing party that people in the West perceive it to be.”
In fact, Shas’s conduct in the Knesset is often idiosyncratic, a reality that stems from a political identity based on a complicated mix of economic, religious, ethnic and social class factors. Shas’s intentions on this or that vote have the rare ability to grip the Israeli public, almost like a soap opera. In recent days, there has been a “will they or won’t they?” saga involving the two Shas cabinet ministers’ eventual vote on the settlement-freeze proposal.
The party has sent out mixed messages. On some occasions, key officials give the impression that Shas is resolutely against a renewed freeze; on others, they indicate that Shas will give its tacit approval by abstaining.
Most analysts predict that Shas will wait until the last moment to declare its intentions. It will do this, say the analysts, to extract the largest political concessions possible in other areas from Netanyahu before pledging loyalty to him. “In this sense, Shas is a very comfortable coalition partner for Netanyahu,” said Erez Tzfadia, a Shas expert from southern Israel’s Sapir Academic College, referring to the party’s lack of ideological rigidity.
It was back in 1984 that the most politically marginalized Jewish group in Israel, Mizrahim, or immigrants from Arab lands, organized Shas as its political representative. From its founding until the mid-1990s Shas was a decidedly dovish party. Rabbi Ovadia, as its founder is known, was the most prominent rabbi to give his backing to the principle of land for peace that guided the 1993 Oslo Accords. But since Oslo’s apparent failure, the party has taken increasingly hawkish stances on the peace process and on settlements. Like the country as a whole, the party has moved to the right.
Party spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch told the Forward that the change stems from a feeling that “there is no leader on the other side whom we can negotiate with.” But experts also cite the complicated psychology of its electorate as a factor.
Upon its establishment Shas promised to improve the socio-economic situation of Mizrahi Jews. But it had only limited success. According to Tzfadia, turning right on the peace process was the obvious move then to offset a backlash from its voters — working-class Mizrahim with a propensity for right-wing politics. In Tzfadia’s analysis, this Mizrahi tendency reflected an attempt to assert its own membership in the Ashkenazi-dominated Jewish community.
“If one cannot belong through advancing one’s social class, then nationalism becomes the avenue for stressing your belonging,” he said.
Shas took up this aspect of its electorate’s worldview with zeal. The move, Tzfadia said, kept the party relevant and also offered voters a channel for venting frustration at their lack of economic progress. “Since Shas couldn’t support their voters in economic terms, what could they do?” he said. “They could oppose the process that represented the upper and middle classes in Israeli society.” This was the peace process, seen by many Mizrahim as a project of the wealthy.
Lachmanovitch denies that the party shifted in response to voters. Such a response would be natural for a secular party. But the Shas spokesman insisted that in Shas’s case, the move toward hawkishness was purely a case of party leaders, guided by religious wisdom, concluding that peace with the current Palestinian leadership is unlikely.
“I have to emphasize that regarding the point of view of voters, Ovadia Yosef does not consider that,” he said. “The opinion of the Torah is what he says. And what he says the ministers do,” he said.
Shas voters commonly see the move rightward as a natural process as the party became stronger and better able to advance views they believe party leaders always held. Party loyalist Shlomo Hazan, an Orthodox Moroccan-born postal worker from Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, said he admires Shas because it “strengthens Judaism” and because it is a party of “Eretz Yisrael ha-Sheleima” — the entire Biblical Land of Israel. “The party strengthened, and as a result Eretz Yisrael strengthened,” he said.
Whatever the spur for the change, both the party and scholars stress that it did not signal Shas’s conversion into a thoroughgoing pro-settler bastion. Instead, it has been characterized by political pragmatism. “You cannot put Shas on the left or the right — it depends on the issue,” said Lachmanovitch. “You should maybe divide between the ideas and what is done practically.”
Aviad Rubin, a politics lecturer at Haifa University, said that Shas gives high-profile expression to its hawkish strain, but only when this suits its needs. “They will sometimes capitalize on this — but only if the timing is right for the party,” he commented, giving the example of Shas’s decision to quit the government on the eve of the Camp David Summit in 2000. The party loudly cited ideological grounds for its departure then, he noted, when it seemed that the government was crumbling anyway, but not on other occasions, when territorial concessions were also on the agenda.
Some recent sounds from Shas suggest that the dovish strain has disappeared completely. Last August, Yosef reportedly said in a sermon that Palestinians are “evil” and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should “perish from this world.” But Rubin believes that such statements reflect the rabbi’s analysis of Palestinian society and leadership today and do not indicate that he is now an out-and-out hawk. “If he will come to the conclusion that the [negotiating] partner is serious, he will stand by his original position,” Rubin predicted.
Analysts also cite other factors that restrain Shas’s hawkishness in the Cabinet room.
While some Israeli right-wingers have little reverence for America — Likud lawmaker Danny Danon even advocated a boycott of the U.S. ambassador’s July 4 reception last year to protest the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel — Shas adheres to the traditional Haredi principle of not angering gentile powers. “It has a deep belief that world powers may hold the future of the Jewish people in their hands, and that it is unwise to challenge the great powers,” Sharkansky said.
Another factor is that Shas maintains a large national network of schools and religious institutions. They receive their funding through numerous budgets, so there is no single figure for how much government funding they rely upon. But estimates reach 1 billion shekels ($270 million) a year. Much of it is bargained for in the Cabinet room. “No other party in Israel has this social welfare apparatus,” said Yoav Peled, a Tel Aviv University political scientist and specialist on Shas. “This is why they desperately need to be in the government.”
Peled also believes that cynicism about the genuineness of the current peace process helps to make Shas amenable. “Why should they be difficult if it is not leading anywhere? Why shouldn’t they accommodate [Netanyahu] in this show?” he asked.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com