Ruling Israel Diminishing for Shas With Death of Founding Rabbi

Israelis turned out in unprecedented numbers to mourn the death last week of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Shas party. His successors are unlikely to be able to maintain the group’s political clout.

The funeral of the Iraqi-born Yosef, who energized Jews of Middle Eastern descent into a potent political force, brought an estimated 800,000 mourners into Jerusalem’s streets. He leaves behind a party that’s been in almost every coalition since its creation in 1984, often acting as the swing party that determines who gets to head the government. Yet it was excluded from the current cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu, and may struggle to recapture the influence it enjoyed under Yosef.

“Without Rabbi Ovadia, the days of Shas as the kingmaker that will decide coalitions is probably over for good,” said Nitzan Chen, a former journalist who co-wrote a biography of Yosef. “The party will probably lose a number of its parliamentary seats, and that will change Israel’s political map,” said Chen, who now heads the Government Press Office.

Netanyahu left Shas out of his current coalition in favor of an alliance of parties seeking to limit privileges enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox, which Shas typically defended. The government has passed a law to limit draft exemptions for religious studies students, and says it will seek to reduce their funding.

Divided Leadership

Yosef didn’t designate a clear successor, and the Shas leadership has been divided between two of his proteges, Arieh Deri and Eli Yishai, neither commanding the public respect and affection awarded to their mentor. Deri, who took his first cabinet post at age 24, was convicted for corruption in 2000 and served 22 months in prison.

“Without Yosef there as Shas spiritual leader, Deri will try to shift the party’s focus from strictly religious concerns and more to broader economic and social issues that could attract working-class voters,” said Chen.

Shas -- a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Guardians of the Torah, or Jewish holy book -- holds 11 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. While the party focuses on promoting religious education and observance, including the running of its own school system and social welfare organizations, its appeal extends beyond the strictly observant to Israel’s broader traditional-minded Sephardi population.

‘Second-Class Citizens’

The party was established by Yosef to redress what its supporters see as decades of discrimination against Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent, by an establishment dominated by Ashkenazim, or Jews of central and eastern European heritage.

“Shas was able to capitalize on the feeling of many Sephardi Israelis that they were second-class citizens, who took special pride in Yosef rising from humble roots to become the great rabbinical sage of his generation,” said Batia Siebzehner, a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and co-author of a book on Shas.

Strictly conservative on cultural issues, Yosef demonstrated greater flexibility regarding the peace process than other Orthodox religious leaders, a stance reflecting more his personal views than that of his party’s constituency.

During Israel’s negotiations with Egypt in the late 1970s over whether to return the Sinai peninsula, Yosef, who was the chief Sephardic rabbi at the time, ruled that saving a life -- “pikuach nefesh” in Hebrew -- took precedence over holding onto territory. In the 1990s Shas abstained in the initial vote on the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, enabling it to pass the Knesset.

‘More Hawkish’

“Ovadia was able to get Shas votes from a constituency more hawkish than he was,” said Gideon Rahat, political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “With him gone, it may lose voters to more hardline nationalistic parties, or Shas itself may turn more hawkish.”

Shas voters may defect to the Jewish Home party, which has opposed all concessions with Palestinians, or to Netanyahu’s Likud, according to Chen. Four opinion polls published in August showed the party dropping to nine or ten Knesset seats.

In the past decade, Shas shifted its stance and opposed territorial withdrawal, including the 2005 evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip. Yosef, who became increasingly outspoken in his later years, said of Ariel Sharon, the leader who ordered it: “God will strike him with one blow and he will die.” Sharon suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006, and has been in a coma since then.

‘Couldn’t Stand Them’

David Glass, a legal adviser to Shas, said Yosef’s earlier support for peace moves was “not because he loved Arabs. He even admitted he couldn’t stand them,” according to the Al-Monitor website. “He loved Jews, and determined that peace was preferable to lands because peace ensures the existence of the Jewish people,” Glass told Al-Monitor in an interview.

Shas hasn’t let the traditional Jewish seven-day “shiva” mourning period for Yosef deter it from its political mission. During a sympathy visit to the Yosef home last week, Netanyahu was berated by the party’s leaders for forming a government without them, and for passing the law requiring most Jewish seminary students to serve in the army.

Two days after Yosef’s death, the Shas Council of Jewish Sages, a rabbinical board that guides the party’s policy, issued a statement calling voters to honor their late leader by supporting Likud Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion against incumbent Nir Barkat, who is opposed by the city’s ultra-Orthodox community.

“The Shas leadership will try to capitalize politically on Yosef’s passing, which may work in the short term,” said Rahat. “But in the long run they will have to try to stabilize the party and decide how to divide their cake, which will prove very difficult without him.”

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