An ultra-Orthodox Jewish party run by an octogenarian rabbi who has said Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment emerged Thursday as the kingmaker in forming the next Israeli government.
Having won a fight to be leader of the ruling Kadima Party, Tzipi Livni now will likely need Shas as a partner to become prime minister. But Shas opposes any compromise on Jerusalem, and including it in a coalition could tie her hands in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Livni's narrow victory in a party primary Wednesday to replace corruption-tainted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Kadima's chairman means she can become prime minister if she can put together a coalition government of her own.
Livni, now the foreign minister, has said she would like to keep the current four-party coalition intact.
Two of Kadima's partners, Labor and the Pensioners, aren't expected to balk. But Shas and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, are wild cards. The party holds 12 of parliament's 120 seats, enough to make or break the current majority bloc of 67 lawmakers.
Livni had barely declared victory Thursday morning when Shas laid down its demands.
"If it's clear Jerusalem is on the negotiating table and social-economic needs are not taken into consideration, then we won't be part of the coalition," Shas spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch said.
Shas Cabinet minister Ariel Attias said the party wants more funding from the cash-strapped government for the welfare projects that are popular with its low-income constituents.
Formal coalition negotiations won't begin until Olmert officially resigns and President Shimon Peres assigns Livni the task of forming a new government, which could happen next week.
But Livni said she would begin informal coalition negotiations immediately. In one of her first acts as Kadima leader, she scheduled a meeting with Shas leaders late Thursday. Shas leader Eli Yishai said they discussed setting up a coalition.
If Livni can't keep the coalition intact, elections would likely be called for early next year some 18 months ahead of schedule. In either case, Olmert will remain as a caretaker leader until a new Cabinet is approved.
With opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line Likud Party polling well, Livni is under heavy pressure to keep the 67-seat coalition intact and avoid elections.
Netanyahu made his preference clear. "The cleanest and most democratic thing to do is to hold a general election," he told reporters Thursday.
Shaul Mofaz, the ex-defense minister and military chief who lost to Livni in the Kadima primary, called a news conference to announce plans to leave politics.
"I am not asking for role or a position in the Cabinet or the parliament," he said. He did not say whether he planned to resign now or just not to seek another term in parliament.
Negotiations could drag on for weeks.
Kadima lawmaker Amira Dotan said she expected Shas to make excessive demands. "This is the way we educated them for a long, long time," she said, referring to concessions made to Shas to entice the party into governing coalitions.
Dotan said Kadima is ready to compromise but has other options.
"Kadima is a centrist party," she said, so a number of parties "can very easily make a coalition with Kadima." She mentioned the small dovish Meretz party and smaller religious parties, which together have one less seat than Shas.
Israeli politicians traditionally have been willing to meet Shas' spending demands.
But declaring a moratorium on Jerusalem negotiations would be tough for Livni. As Israel's lead peace negotiator, she is committed to discussing all issues with the Palestinians. The future of Jerusalem, claimed by Israel and the Palestinians, is at the heart of the conflict.
True Torah Jews are alarmed by this misrepresentation of Judaism by the Shas Party. We feel it is very important for the public to learn the truth about these current events, by reviewing fifty years of history.
Sephardic Jews, living in their ancient communities throughout the Middle East, were always religiously observant without exception. While European Jewry was spiritually devastated by such secular movements as Haskalah, Socialism and Zionism, Sephardic Jewry knew nothing of these innovations. They clung to the Torah and its commandments as did their fathers and grandfathers before them.
When the State of Israel was established, all of this changed. The fledgling state badly needed more Jews to populate its newly conquered territories, to fight in its wars, and to stimulate its economy. The Zionists leaders embarked on an emergency campaign to bring all the Sephardic Jews to the country. In order to wean them quickly away from their old ways, they took children away from their parents and placed them in anti-religious collective farms. They made these children into believers in the new nationalism and slaves to the Zionist cause.
Sephardic families from Morocco and Algeria were forcibly placed in settlements far away from their own countrymen, so that they would forget their heritage. Children from Yemen were kidnapped and their parents were told that they were dead. The children were brainwashed and raised as secular Zionists. Even before children immigrated, the Zionist Agency set up preparatory camps in which the children were taught atheism and beaten when they tried to keep Torah laws.
The Zionist plan to convert the Sephardim was, unfortunately, largely successful. But all this was new to the Sephardim, and they did not forsake their old faith completely. Many of them continue to keep some laws of the Torah and feel sympathetic to tradition, as well as under-represented in the Israeli government.
Enter the Shas Party. Founded in the early nineties, Shas appeals to these traditional-minded Sephardim who are also thoroughly brought up on Zionist nationalism. Todays secular Zionists, who want to make peace with the Palestinians, should not be surprised at the Sephardims ultra-Zionistic feeling it is nothing but the upbringing the earlier secular Zionists gave them.
On the other hand, Torah Jews wish to stress that this has nothing to do with Judaism. The doctrine that Jerusalem must be under Zionist rule is a product of this relatively new infusion of Zionism into Jews kept ignorant of their own religion. Traditional Judaism obligates Jews to live on peaceful terms with non-Jews in all the countries where they reside. Moreover, traditional Judaism opposes the very existence of a Jewish state and thus cannot endorse one Zionist plan or the other for how to run their state and where its borders should be.
The only reason the Shas party is prominent in the news while traditional, anti-Zionist Jews are not is that anti-Zionist Jews do not believe in the existence of the State of Israel and as such do not participate in its electoral process. Anti-Zionist Jews exist in the hundreds of thousands, both in the Holy Land and in other countries, but unfortunately their voice is not always heard because media attention typically focuses on politics, not on religious belief.
The two demands made by Shas to a potential Kadima government are symbolic of the transformation that has occurred in religious Israeli politics. They want government money for their institutions, and they want all of Jerusalem under Zionist sovereignty. The first demand is nothing new. Religious participation in the Israeli government began largely because of the participants earnest desire to gain funding for their poor and for Torah institutions. At the time, many rabbis warned that participation in the government would lead to forgetting the Torahs inherent opposition to the very existence of that government. But the joiners assured the rabbis that they would not forget, and their joining was merely a method of fighting from within.
Today more than ever, we see the bitter results of participation. Those who have played along with the Zionists in order to gain favors from them have become more Zionist than the Zionists themselves. And worse yet, they are now powerful enough that they can actually stop the Zionists from making concessions for the sake of peace.