Israel's Shas, Right-Wing Kingmaker Party, Takes Sharp Turn to Left

New Tremor Could Shake Up Netanyahu Coalition

Return to Throne: Arye Deri, a shrewd political operator, has a plan to get the Sephardic Shas Party back from the political wilderness: he’s pushing the party to the left.
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Return to Throne: Arye Deri, a shrewd political operator, has a plan to get the Sephardic Shas Party back from the political wilderness: he’s pushing the party to the left.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 16, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Besides angering progressives, the compromise embarrasses Lapid’s close friend and ally Naftali Bennett, head of the religious-Zionist party, Jewish Home. Bennett supports Stav and favors the council-expansion bill. Most of Bennett’s party went behind his back to close the deal with Shas.

Most important, the education deal infuriated Lapid’s base. Hostility toward the Sephardic Haredi party is a visceral reality among Yesh Atid voters. Lapid got hit with a flood of criticism after Deri announced the deal from supporters who accused him of coddling Shas.

The next morning, May 14, Lapid issued his own announcement, claiming there was no deal and calling Deri a liar. The cuts in Shas school funding weren’t canceled, he said, but merely postponed for six months. The reason wasn’t a deal with Shas, he said, but a legal technicality: The government couldn’t defund a school system if the children had no alternative, since the state is obliged to provide an education to every child. There’s a new public Haredi school system being planned, but it’s not open yet. When it opens, Shas schools will get defunded unless they adopt the core subjects.

In fact, all this was made plain in Deri’s and Piron’s statements from the night before. But Lapid’s broadside gave him useful cover. He’s still learning to think like a politician. Much less useful for Piron, who now had to issue another statement backing up his boss, in effect calling himself a liar.

If all that sounds Machiavellian, it’s nothing compared with the Shas endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab plan calls for a Palestinian state with borders based on the pre-1967 cease-fire lines and a capital in East Jerusalem. Israeli acceptance would likely mean immediate withdrawal from the coalition of Bennett and his settler-backed party, dissolving Netanyahu’s majority.

The prime minister could theoretically replace Bennett with Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor Party. But that would put Netanyahu on the right flank of his own government, a status he wouldn’t accept. Shas’s embrace of the peace plan solves that problem. That makes it harder for Netanyahu to say no.

This brings the prime minister that much closer to a decision he’s never wanted to make. It also brings Shas closer to reclaiming seats in the Cabinet, with all the ministries, perks and patronage that have been the party’s life-blood for decades.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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