Shas Blinks First

Prime Minister Ehud Barak last weekend won his first trial of strength with his religious coalition partners. The Israel Electric Corporation defied Orthodox protests and laboriously transported 250 tons of turbine parts over Friday night from a factory in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, to a new power station 80 miles away in Ashkelon.

Officials appeared to have postponed the shipment while they reviewed alternative routes and timings, but, with the panache of a commando operation, they decided at the last minute that they had no choice and sent the massive load on its 13-hour journey at 8 p.m. Hundreds of secular Jews lined the highway and cheered the convoy of flatbed trucks that was accompanied by nine police cars and crawling along at barely 5 miles per hour.

The traffic police argued that moving the turbine on a weekday would snarl up major roads for hours in the heart of the country. Engineers ruled out minor roads for fear that bridges would collapse under the weight. Another suggestion, to transport the load over three nights, was dropped because no suitable stop-over points were found along the route.

The Sephardic Shas Party, which had threatened to pull its 17 Knesset members out of the coalition if the turbine rolled, was left spluttering with indignation. National Infrastructure Minister Eli Suissa, who spearheaded resistance to the move, branded it “unprecedented chutzpah.”

The Electric Corporation decision was endorsed in advance by the prime minister, who insisted afterward that it was a professional, not a political, matter. “In line with the status quo, which has been in place for 50 years,” his office announced, “the movement of such unusually large loads has been carried out on Shabbat and festivals.”

Government officials pointed out that 20 similar journeys had taken place on the Sabbath over the past six months, two as recently as July. Until now, the religious parties had never complained.

The battle of the turbine is not yet over, however. Another five shipments, each as huge as last weekend’s, have still to be moved south. The same experts who couldn’t find an alternative to Sabbath “desecration” last week are looking again, but the dilemma hasn’t changed.

Shas is still breathing fire and brimstone, with United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party panting reluctantly in its wake. But few, if any, political observers believe it will pull out. Shas leaders know that Barak could manage without them. He would have little difficulty adding secular fringe parties to the 58 seats he would still command in the 120-member parliament.

The turbine campaign is widely interpreted as part of the struggle to succeed the disgraced Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, who is due back in Israel this weekend after a summer’s seclusion in New Jersey. Eli Suissa, who wants to stop the loads moving, is pitted against the more malleable Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai, who enjoys the blessing of the movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

More to the point, Shas cannot afford to be out of government. Rabbi Yosef said so in as many words during the coalition negotiations in June (which made it much easier for Barak to bring Shas on board with a minimum of concessions). The Shas independent school network, the foundation of its power in the impoverished “development” towns and inner-city slums, has a deficit of at least 65 million shekels (about $16 million).

“As of today,” Shlomo Ceszana wrote in Ma’ariv this week, “the network is on the verge of collapse. It has no money for salaries, and, though it expands every year by thousands of pupils, it wants to keep growing. Such growth is only possible if the funds keep flowing.”

For funds read state subsidies. Over the past decade, Shas has eaten into the Likud’s blue-collar heartland by providing free education, from kindergarten up, for more hours a day than the state secular and religious schools can afford. It throws in free meals as a bonus. All of this is paid for by the often-reluctant taxpayer.

The expansion was particularly marked during Binyamin Netanyahu’s precarious government, when religious parties were constantly upping the price for their allegiance. Barak promised to bail out the Shas schools, but only if they opened their account books, taught secular as well as Torah studies and raised their teaching standards.

Rabbi Yosef knows that this is his only hope. Without the fund-raising talents of Aryeh Deri, who is appealing a four-year corruption sentence, Shas has no alternative source of finance. It would also lose the patronage commanded by the party’s four ministries, which provide hundreds of jobs for Shas loyalists.

Ma’ariv’s Ceszana estimates that Rabbi Yosef “controls the tap on a budget of about 1.5 billion shekels in the Religious Affairs Ministry, and the appointment of local rabbis and religious councils.”

Without the schools, without the charismatic Deri and without the pay packets, Shas would soon shrink back to its old level of about four Knesset members. It doesn’t look like a party about to commit suicide.