Could ultra-Orthodox Shas, Arab parties be next peacemakers?

Signs that the ultra-Orthodox Shas party might return to its dovishness of the 1990s  could mean a moderate partner in a right-wing coalition. A left-wing coalition is possible only if Arab parties are finally brought in.

By Daniel Easterman

A few weeks ago, listeners of the popular Kol Rega radio station heard the startling revelation that Shas Knesset Member and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Yitzhak Vaknin, would support a peace agreement based on the 2003 Geneva Accords. Can this be?  After all, the non-official Geneva Accords, signed nine years ago by Yossi Beilin and his Palestinian counterpart, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, calls for a two-state solution. If Shas is supposed to be a “right-wing” party, how is it possible that one of its MKs – and a Deputy Speaker at that – not only supports the Accords but says he would sign it with “both hands”?

In fact, Shas’ position is complex.  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 role as deputy prime minister, he is not the final arbiter on Shas’ policy.  That role belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the elderly spiritual leader of the party.  Rabbi Yosef 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 signal a shift back to this earlier policy as sanctioned by the great Rabbi himself?

Some background: In 1999, Shas became a major player in the Israeli government.  With 17 seats in the Knesset, the party was at its highest point to date, and in a position to exert real influence over the country.  This new-found 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 prime minister and Shas for the Knesset vote.

At a 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 decided that they were not satisfied with the level of funding for their separate education system, and proceeded to bolt from the coalition.  This did not appear to be a coincidence.  Although two other coalition partners soon followed and Barak’s government subsequently fell, Shas’ dramatic defection on the eve of the summit was nevertheless a serious blow to Barak’s legitimacy.

Back to the present: a poll from the financial daily Globes on January 26th, indicates that in the next election Shas’ support will be reduced to six mandates, from 11 in the current Knesset.  And yet, although the common wisdom holds that Netanyahu is a virtual “shoo-in” to be Prime Minister again, in fact, Shas holds the keys to his future political destiny. Assuming that Likud gains the support of its natural allies Yisrael Beiteinu, Jewish Home, National Unity and even the distinctly non-Zionist Ashkenazi-Haredi United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Netanyahu will still fall short of the 61-seat majority needed for a coalition by precisely  six mandates.

However, in the event that center or center-left parties earn enough mandates to form a coalition, Shas will not be as influential.  If Kadima, Labor and a newly formed party by Yair Lapid want to head a government together, and manage to attract the support of Shas, its erstwhile charismatic leader Aryeh Deri – who might also form a new party – and UTJ, they will achieve just 54 seats.  Adding Meretz to the mix with a around four projected mandates, to achieve 58 will accomplish little, especially since  Shas, UTJ and probably Deri are outright hostile to Meretz.  The only way to create a new centrist-moderate governing coalition 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.  Even without Meretz, with the extra 10 or 11 mandates provided by the Arab parties and Hadash, the government would have a stable Knesset majority of around 65.

The question is whether the leaders of the center, ie. Livni, Lapid and Yachimovitch are willing to reach out, make peace a priority, and take the historic political decisions necessary to achieve it.

Daniel Easterman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Tel Aviv. He holds an MPhil (Masters) from Oxford University with a specialization in Israeli politics.