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Shas And The Golden Calf


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Withdrawals, expulsions, and peace agreements are the golden calves of our generation. They hold a mystical sway over the people, regardless of their context, purpose, or arrangement.

Just as we wonder what could possibly have motivated our ancestors to construct and worship a metal cow right after the miracle of the Exodus, our children will wonder what drove us to so shamefully and willingly give up portions of Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim after thousands of years of waiting, hoping, praying and struggling to miraculously regain them.

Not long ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, Israel’s Sephardic-haredi political party, declared that Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was a divine response to the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. Yet Shas, with Rabbi Yosef’s blessing, is a critical member of a government led by Ehud Olmert, the Disengagement’s earliest proponent.

Olmert’s party, Kadima, is the bastard child of the Disengagement.

It was Likud’s founding father, Menachem Begin, who repeatedly exclaimed that Israel would never let go of portions of Eretz Yisrael conquered in 1967. During that war, Begin quietly urged other ministers not to accept a cease-fire until the IDF captured Jerusalem. In 1980, under Begin’s leadership, the Knesset enacted a Basic Law, which possesses quasi-constitutional status in Israel, stating that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.”

In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed Kadima because the majority of the Likud had rebelled against Sharon and his Disengagement. Sharon needed an alternative party to remain in power. He created Kadima and drew on Likud for membership, finding politicians willing to betray Likud’s founding principles of commitment to Eretz Yisrael.

Shas joined Kadima’s government in April 2005. “Shas’s entry into the government,” a National Religious Party member said at the time, “constitutes a de facto kashrut certificate” for the 2005 Disengagement and future plans like it.

Even though Olmert has repeatedly confirmed his willingness to negotiate Jerusalem and create a Palestinian state, Rabbi Yosef continues in his support for the prime minister. He told Olmert the day before the release of the Winograd Report, “Fear not, and do not be dismayed, for I am with you.”

The creation and maintenance of a government in Israel requires 61 Knesset members. In January, Yisrael Beiteinu quit Olmert’s government, leaving it with 67 members, 12 of which belong to Shas. Thus, Shas has become vital to Olmert’s coalition. At least for the time being.

In order to mitigate the hypocrisy of supporting one of the Disengagement’s founding fathers, Shas Chairman (and Olmert’s Vice Premier) Eli Yishai has said that “if Jerusalem is raised as a negotiating issue, we can no longer be in his government.”

Basta! (enough!), as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Likud’s spiritual grandfather, would have exclaimed.

Shas would have the Jewish people believe that it has fulfilled its responsibility merely by promising to leave the government when Olmert “officially” negotiates Jerusalem. But this is a very transparent rationalization because every day Olmert remains in power brings Jerusalem and the Land of Israel that much closer to division.

For years, dividing Jerusalem was a negotiations non-starter. By raising the option of dividing Jerusalem practically sui sponte, Olmert has already moved Jerusalem toward division. He has made Jews comfortable with the idea. He has created expectations in the United States, among the Palestinians, in the wider Arab world and everywhere else that Jerusalem will be divided.

President Bush, in fact, cited the “urgency in [Olmert’s] voice” to support a prediction that a peace treaty would be signed by the end of his presidency.

Bush’s recent visit to Israel illustrated how Shas is contributing to Jerusalem’s division. At a press conference on January 10, Bush listed Jerusalem among several core issues that need to be negotiated as part of a final deal. Recognizing the importance of Olmert’s coalition partners in making his prediction come true, Bush injected himself into Israeli politics by asking Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu to keep Olmert in power.

And Shas’s strategy is tailored to do just that. Because Shas will leave the government only when Olmert “officially” raises the status Jerusalem at negotiations, Olmert merely has to find another party willing to sell out – which in Israeli politics is not hard to do – before he discusses Jerusalem.

In other words, Olmert can count on Shas until he no longer needs it.

Olmert has already approached United Torah Judaism, which has six Knesset seats, and offered NIS 173 million for Orthodox institutions in exchange for its support. Should UTJ or any other party join the government, Shas’s threats to leave would become irrelevant. Olmert would have no further need for Shas – either for a coalition or as a “kashrut certificate” for future negotiations.

Due to his weak political position, Olmert has announced that while “negotiations with the Palestinians would deal with all issues,” Jerusalem would be left for the end. Shas Communications Minister Ariel Attia took this as confirmation of Shas’s strategy. Olmert “will leave the Jerusalem issue until the end of the negotiations because of us, and we will make sure he never gets there,” he said.

But all the announcement really means is that Olmert is buying time to consolidate his political position by waiting for the negative effects of the Winograd Report to subside and then finding another coalition partner. In the end, proceeding with negotiations in a different order will reach the same result: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Actually, discussing Jerusalem at the end rather than the beginning of negotiations might improve the chances of reaching a deal. Even if disagreement over Jerusalem remained a sticking point, momentum and raised expectations likely would override all else once an overall agreement seemed imminent.

Shas recently had a unique opportunity to stop Olmert in his tracks. Labor chair Ehud Barak – whose party is the second largest in the coalition, with 19 seats – had promised he would quit Olmert’s government after the release of the Winograd Report. A poll taken by Israel’s Channel Two just hours after the report was made public indicated that 45% of Israelis believed Barak should resign. If Shas had quit then, Barak would have been under pressure to keep his promise. Instead, Rabbi Yosef, as mentioned above, did the opposite. Barak then followed suit, promising Olmert nine months of political quiet.

But a Shas departure could still carry political, as well as moral, sway. Shas’s example would exert moral influence over other parties, like UTJ, which is Shas’s Ashkenazi counterpart. While UTJ has stated it has no intention of joining Olmert’s government, if it did decide to join, the move would be easier to justify if Shas were still in the government.

Further, Shas’s leaving the coalition might cause members of Olmert’s own party to leave as well. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick has speculated that a Shas departure could convince as many as 11 Kadima Knesset members to exit the government. When Olmert addressed the Knesset regarding the Winograd Report, six coalition members (four from Labor and two from Kadima) voted not to accept his speech.

And even if the leftist Meretz (whose members have called on Olmert to resign) and the Arab parties were to block no-confidence measures in the Knesset against Olmert’s coalition, Olmert would still lose political standing. Negotiations conducted by a minority coalition would seem like a sham to most Israelis. That might lead to infighting in the coalition (and in Kadima itself) and to renewed pressure on Barak to leave the coalition.

Shas’s departure would be important not only in terms of practical political concerns but also for what it would say about Israeli democracy, about truth, and about Judaism.

Israelis should not have to feel that anyone they vote for will join a government that supports concessions. If Olmert had to survive on Arab votes, it would expose the truth that an Arab party (or parties) was the deciding factor in Israeli decisions supposedly made to protect Jews from their Arab enemies.

Finally, if Shas were to quit, it would at least send the message that a Torah faction will not be a party to the division of Jerusalem or Eretz Yisrael.

Despite Olmert’s assurances, there is no ironclad guarantee that Jerusalem won’t secretly be negotiated – and sooner rather than later. According to recent news reports, PA officials are already claiming that Jerusalem is indeed the subject of clandestine negotiations. Yishai has said that if such reports are true, Shas will leave the government. At this writing, Shas remains in the coalition. What exactly is the party waiting for – a bat kol?

Shas’s behavior calls to mind the strategy employed by Aharon at the time of the Golden Calf, which we read about in Parshat Ki Tissa. Not only did he participate in the building of the idol, he failed to stop Israel from sinning and was rebuked upon Moshe’s return. And Aharon had a mob to deal with while Moshe, the only person able to control the people, was on Har Sinai. Shas is not threatened by an angry mob. Quite the contrary – Olmert has little support from the people, and most Israelis think he should resign.

Shas spokesmen would no doubt respond to all this by saying that various factors need to be taken into account before the party could leave the government. Perhaps party leaders have made a personal commitment to Olmert. Perhaps they believe it would be unprofessional to quit. But such things pale in comparison to the responsibilities owed to Jerusalem and the Jewish people.

It is no defense for Shas to claim it is not morally responsible for Olmert’s actions. The party is his partner. Shas’s spokesman is Olmert’s vice premier. Its spiritual leader offers Olmert aid and comfort in times of political trouble.

One Jerusalem, an organization dedicated to Jewish sovereignty over a unified Jerusalem, is exclaiming “basta!” to Shas. It recently sent out an action alert asking supporters to contact Shas (eyishay@knesset.gov.il) and urge it to leave the government. “At present, Israel’s Shas party holds the life of Jerusalem in its hands,” the alert stated.

Shas must cease this folly of keeping in power a government whose most important policy Shas claims to reject. No Torah party should participate in a government that stands ready to negotiate the division of Jerusalem. Shas talks about the unity of Jerusalem, but when will it act to preserve that unity – when the completion of negotiations is but a mere formality before the papers are signed?

Every moment Olmert remains in power brings the division of Jerusalem that much closer. If Shas does not act now, it may soon be too late.

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About the Author: Daniel Tauber is a frequent contributor to various prominent publications, including the Jewish Press, Arutz Sheva, Americanthinker.com, the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. Daniel is also an attorney admitted to practice law in Israel and New York and received his J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. You can follow him on facebook and twitter.


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