New voices from Shas suggest the party is moving back to its former pro-peace position. However, if the Centre-Left wants to form the next government, it must look to the Arab parties as their future coalition partners.
Listeners of the popular Kol Rega radio station heard the startling revelation earlier this month that Shas MK and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Yitzhak Vaknin would support a peace agreement based on the 2003 Geneva Accords. But how can this be I hear you ask? If we roll back the clock to nine years ago, Yossi Beilin, hardly a natural friend of Shas, signed the non-official Accords calling for a two-state solution with his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed-Rabbo in Geneva. According to the received wisdom, Shas is supposed to be a “right-wing” party, so how is it possible that one of their MKs – and a Deputy Speaker at that – not only supports the Accords but says he would sign it with “both hands”? True, Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai has clearly stated that there should be no limits to construction in all the Land of Israel, but despite his lofty temporal role as Deputy Prime Minister, he is not the final arbiter on Shas party policy. That role belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the elderly Spiritual Leader of the party. Although Rabbi Yosef also has a reputation for making controversial comments regarding the peace process, he is known to be more sympathetic towards the idea of land for peace and essentially provided Rabin with his own Halachic (Jewish-legal) justification for the Oslo Accords in 1993. Could Vaknin’s comments be a signal of a shift back to this previous policy as sanctioned by the great Rabbi himself?
But first a little recent history. Back in 1999 Shas was a major player in the Israeli government. With 17 seats in the Knesset, the party was riding high and in a position to exert real influence over the country. This newfound political strength derived partly from the introduction of the new electoral system providing Israelis with two separate votes – one for the Prime Minister and one for the Knesset. This resulted in many Sephardic and Mizrahi voters of the “masorti” (traditional) persuasion splitting their vote between Likud for PM and Shas for MK.
At the critical juncture when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was due to travel to the ill-fated peace talks at Camp David in 2000, Shas politicians suddenly decided that they were not satisfied with the level of funding for their separate education system. Coincidence we ask? Not likely. In the end, even if Shas had remained in the government at this important moment, it would not have made a difference in terms of Barak’s Knesset majority, as two other major coalition partners – Yisrael B’Aliyah and the National Religious Party (NRP) also resigned at the same time. Nevertheless, Shas’ dramatic defection on the eve of the Summit was a serious hammer blow to Barak’s legitimacy and massively undercut his political support among a large swathe of the Israeli population.
Fast-forward to the present day: a recent poll from Yediot Ahronot on the 9th of January indicates that in the next election Shas’ support is stable at the rather modest figure of six mandates. And yet, in the event of a post-election standoff between left and right over who will form the next government, these six mandates could prove critical. For all the talk that Netanyahu is a virtual “shoo-in” to be Prime Minister next time around, surprise surprise, it is Shas again that holds the keys to his future political destiny. If we assume that Likud gains the support of its “natural allies” of Yisrael Beiteinu, Jewish Home, National Home and even the distinctly non-Zionist Haredi United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Netanyahu will still fall short of the required 61 by yes, you guessed it, 6 if Shas doesn’t join.
But when it comes to the formation of a potential centrist or centre-left government, Shas is not likely to be in a similarly influential position. If Kadima, Labor and Lapid want to head a government together, and manage to attract the support of Shas, Aryeh Deri (former Shas leader) and UTJ, they will also fall short, achieving just 54. Adding Meretz to the mix with their 4 mandates, to which Shas, UTJ and probably Deri are outright hostile doesn’t improve matters – resulting in 58 – still 3 short of the absolute minimum needed. The only thing that will take a new centrist-moderate government over the top is by finally breaking once and for all the historic taboo of including the Arab parties in a broad-based coalition. Such a government would make peace negotiations towards a two-state solution a national priority and would have the full institutional backing of the Israeli parliamentary system to support it. Even without Meretz, with the extra 11 mandates provided by the Arab parties and Hadash, the government would have a stable Knesset majority of 65. Contrary to the claims of other commentators, the arithmetic works. The only question is whether the leaders of the centre and left, ie. Livni, Lapid and Yachimovitch are willing to reach out, make peace a priority, and take the historic political decisions necessary to achieve it.