Is There Room for Shas in Barak’s Tent?

During the wild victory party in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Election Night, a chant went up in the crowd: “Just not Shas!” Ehud Barak heard the same chant when he spoke early this week to a gathering of campaign activists. A booth with a fax machine in Kikar Rabin has already sent more than 20,000 faxes to Barak from his supporters, who urge him not to invite the meteoric Sephardic fervently Orthodox party into his governing coalition. Thousands of e-mails have been sent to Barak with the same message.

On Monday, when Barak’s coalition negotiating team sat down for preliminary talks with Shas’ people in a Herzliya hotel, a hang glider flew over with a sign that read, “Just not Shas.”

Yet Barak’s representatives say the incoming prime minister wants the party in the government — if it will agree to a set of strict conditions. Despite Shas’ popular image as the rising threat to Israeli democracy, there is a large body of opinion among the secular left-wing camp — including author Amos Oz — that favors including Shas in the next government.

Having won 17 Knesset seats (out of 120) in the election, Shas is now one of Israel’s three big parties, behind Barak’s One Israel (26 seats) and just behind Likud (19 seats). The left-wing Meretz and Shinui parties say they will not sit in a government with Shas (or with the Ashkenazic fervently Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism). On a recent TV talk show, Meretz Knesset Member Amnon Rubinstein was explaining that Shas had placed itself beyond the pale by attacking the justice system and by lionizing its party leader, Arye Deri, after he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for accepting bribes.

Labor Knesset Member Dalia Itsic replied: “Anybody who wants Shas to get 34 seats in the next election should keep them out of the government.”

In the audience, Shas activist Haim Barzilai chimed in: “Keep us out of the government and we won’t get 34 seats next time; we’ll get 40.”

In the pro-Barak camp, there is no love lost for Shas. The dispute is over tactics — whether Shas is more dangerous inside the tent or outside.

Author Sami Michael, a Barak and Meretz supporter, said that if Shas is kept out, “it will turn them into a kind of nonviolent Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. Shas supporters are among the poorest and least educated Israelis, living in poor peripheral towns and urban slums. The anger and alienation they already feel will deepen if they feel they are deliberately being shunted aside.” Such a large constituency — 430,000 voters — cannot be disregarded, say those in favor of taking Shas in.

Another key argument for bringing in Shas is that the party is relatively dovish and will be an important political ally when it comes time for difficult concessions to the Palestinians or Syrians. “If it comes down to a choice between bringing in Shas, or bringing in the Likud and the National Religious Party, I would prefer Shas,” said Michael.

Hannah Kim, a columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, disputed both these popular arguments. Shas thrives on feelings of alienation and has no interest in easing them, Kim wrote. “From the moment of its founding [in the early 1980s], Shas has taken part in every government coalition, but the party has nonetheless increased its constituents’ sense of alienation from the state…while, at the same time, creating a false image of a persecuted and unrecognized party.” She also disputed the claim that Shas was an ally of the peace process, noting that the party abstained in the Knesset vote on the Oslo accord and voted against the Oslo II accord.

Opponents of bringing Shas into the government say this would “dry up” the party’s funding sources for its vast educational and social services network. “Shas is a welfare state within a welfare state,” said Dr. Yossi Dahan, a researcher at the Adva Center, a progressive social think tank. Shas’ El Hama’ayan (To the Wellspring) school system, which offers cheap, all-day classes, including free bus transport and meals, is a powerful draw to Israel’s Sephardic poor. The system is almost wholly funded by the government. If Shas lost its leverage within the government, El Hama’ayan’s strength would be reduced drastically, Dahan said. (Dahan, however, favors Shas’ inclusion in the government for essentially the same reasons cited by Michael.)

Barak’s key demand of Shas is that Deri withdraw from the leadership of the party — not just in word, but in deed. Asked if Shas would agree to this, Barzilai replied, “Shas without Deri is like One Israel without Meretz and Shinui.”

Other conditions are that Shas give up the Interior Ministry; show respect for the rule of law; and run its various institutions openly, not in secret.

The implications of these demands are that Shas stop haranguing the courts, prosecutors and police; and that it shut down its approximately 40 pirate radio stations, some of which were openly calling for ballot stuffing on Election Day. Many leaders of One Israel have also insisted that Shas integrate El Hama’ayan into the public school system. An official close to Barak has said that if Shas agrees to these demands and carries them out, “then it won’t be Shas anymore.”

If Barak gives Shas substantial power in the government without first clipping its wings, he will alienate not only many of his core supporters but also his newest political ally — the Russian immigrants, more than 55 percent of whom voted for Barak, mainly because Netanyahu had grown too close to Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Yet after posting such astonishing gains in the election, Shas is not in the mood to have its wings clipped. If it comes into the government, it will come in as a senior partner. And if Shas goes into the opposition? “Then we’re going to make a lot of trouble for Barak,” said a Shas activist who didn’t want to be named. “It’s going to be a big mess.”