The Jerusalem Post (Link) - Matthew Wagner & Gill Hoffman (January 27, 2009)
In a political gamble, Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced Monday that Shas would endorse Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, not Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, as the nation's next prime minister. "We will recommend to President [Shimon] Peres that Netanyahu be the one to put together the next government," said Yishai during a press conference in Tel Aviv to unveil Shas's new TV campaign.
"I see a broad coalition, a national unity government, with [Ehud] Barak as defense minister and with a strong social activist leaning and Jewish values thanks to Shas. Shas will be the mezuza of the government.
"A strong Shas means a Likud that is more sensitive to social issues, a strong Shas means a Likud that is embodied with Jewish values and tradition, a strong Shas will protect the weak socioeconomic groups in Israeli society.
"Bibi has reached the conclusion after the Sharon-Shinui-Labor coalition that it dealt too harsh of a blow to the weak strata in Israeli society. Shas will prevent Likud from hurting them again."
Shas spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch denied that Shas and Likud had reached an agreement ahead of elections. Asked whether Shas would be willing to sit in a government headed by Livni, Yishai insisted that Netanyahu, not Livni, would be the one who would form the next coalition.
"In the last government we did not join a coalition headed by Tzipi Livni because she wanted to split Jerusalem and because she refused to agree to our demand for aid for the weak strata in Israeli society."
Yishai's declaration of support for Netanyahu might be based on recent opinion surveys that show Likud leading Kadima by at least four Knesset seats. In some surveys, Likud's advantage is more than twice that amount.
The message sent out by Yishai comes just one day after Livni, during a conference on education at Tel Aviv University, vowed that Shas would not receive the education portfolio. She also reiterated her claim that Shas attempted to "extort" Kadima in negotiations to form a coalition after Livni was chosen to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Kadima head.
In its TV campaign, Shas responded to Livni's accusations. "There are 800,000 hungry children in Israel...attempts by Shas to aid these hungry children were called extortion by Tzipi Livni."
Livni failed to form a coalition and was forced to call for early elections after Kadima failed to reach an agreement with Shas to increase child allotments, which have been cut gradually starting in 2003.
Also in the campaign, a heavy emphasis is put on socioeconomic issues. "Even during a period of economic slowdown, Kadima still wants to hurt the poor. Calls to cut the budget will only strengthen as a result of the expenses of the war in Gaza. Shas is the only real social activist party on the map that will protect the rights of the poor."
Ilan Cohen, an Israel Electric Company (IEC) employee who heads Shas's secular forum, said that many members of large labor unions in companies such as IEC, Bezeq, Mekorot and among firefighters support Shas for socioeconomic reasons.
"No other party stands up for workers' rights like Shas," said Cohen who defined himself as "totally secular". He said that there were "hundreds" like him.
Shas will also emphasize security issues, particularly maintaining Jerusalem's united status.
In response to a question from The Jerusalem Post on Shas's stance regarding the creation of a Palestinian state, Yishai answered, "There is no one to speak to on the Palestinian side.
"Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] does not control more than half of his nation. As long as over there is no order, no unity and no real desire to make peace on the Palestinian side, there is no partner. So we have to tell the Americans the truth: there is no one to speak with.
"When there is someone to speak with, then we will talk. But in the meantime, we cannot abandon the security of Israeli citizens.
"How did King David put it in Psalms, 'I am for peace and my mouth speaks thus and they are for war.' They want to hurt us, they want war."
Commenting on Shas's desire to receive the education portfolio, Yishai said, "It is clear to me today, as a result of the campaign launched against us that implied Shas would endanger the Education Ministry, that Likud will not give up the education portfolio.
"But we will demand deputy ministers and we will demand that Shas have a say in what goes on there, and that we will talk about Jewish values, Jewish tradition, respect for parents. Throughout the years, all the political parties received the education portfolio - Likud, Labor, Meretz and NRP - and each case was a total failure.
"The level of studies has gradually fallen and there has been a rise in drugs, crime and violence. Shas will make sure that in the coalition agreement, there will Jewish values and tradition in all schools in Israel - everyone will receive Jewish education and Jewish values."
Following Yishai's announcement, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said that Likud and Shas were a "package deal."
"There was a deal between Bibi and Shas even before the elections were declared and it's clear that it still stands today," said Livni in a speech to 350 students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "To Shas and all the other parties, it's clear that I cannot be extorted. The choice is between Likud and Eli Yishai or us - Shas and Likud are a package deal."
Livni went on to claim that Likud and Shas would prevent any diplomatic process, would not create social cohesion, and would prevent unity and common bonds.
"This partnership was born in sin and today it has come out. Bibi and Shas. The public has to decide what it wants," added the Kadima leader.
Head of Kadima's response team, MK Yoel Hasson, said that "it's clear, contrary to Netanyahu's denials, that an ideological alliance between Bibi and Shas has been exposed."
"What has still not been revealed though is what Shas's price will be in negotiations over the Education Ministry - billions for child welfare, blocking civil unions and easements for conversions, and toughening the position for women in the rabbinic courts," he continued. "Whoever votes Netanyahu will get Shas."
Also responding to Yishai's announcement, Labor campaign chairman MK Ofir Paz-Pines on Tuesday called upon Netanyahu to "reveal his secret deal with Shas."
"We will have to pay a big price for whatever Netanyahu and Shas agreed to behind closed doors. A smart politician like Eli Yishai would not endorse Netanyahu two weeks before the election if he didn't have something in return already in his pocket," Paz-Pines said.