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?