Eli Yishai concedes likely opposition role for Shas

Leader of ultra-Orthodox party says Lapid and Bennett, who appear poised to join Netanyahu, are driven by desire to ‘harm’ Torah

Shas leader Eli Yishai (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Shas leader Eli Yishai (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Eli Yishai, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas, on Thursday morning acknowledged that his party would in all probability be left out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergent coalition. The likely outgoing interior minister also launched a blistering attack on Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, saying the alliance between the respective leaders of the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties was forged solely with an eye toward “harming the world of Torah.”

The Shas leader’s harsh comments came hours after sources close to coalition negotiations said that Netanyahu, realizing that he could not pry Jewish Home away from its pact with Yesh Atid, had resigned himself to the need to build a coalition that would exclude Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Netanyahu has been hampered in the coalition talks by the joint insistence of Bennett and Lapid that they will only enter the government if Netanyahu commits to legislation that will see almost all young ultra-Orthodox males required to perform military or national service — anathema to the prime minister’s familiar ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” Yishai said in a statement. “Reports say that Lapid and Bennett are succeeding in their attempt to rule out a joint coalition with Shas.” The “immaturity” of those rookie politicians, he charged, had prompted them to “ignore the will of the electorate and attempt to force their views on others.”

Yishai’s comments appeared to reflect acceptance of Shas’s new role as an opposition party.

“Sitting in the coalition and holding onto jobs is not a goal!” he said. “It is a means with which to serve the public… Anyone whose goal is to serve the public will do so in any position in which one finds oneself” — even in the opposition.

Netanyahu’s negotiating teams have been meeting daily with Jewish Home leaders, and on Thursday were set to meet with Yesh Atid representatives, amid reports late Wednesday that the prime minister had concluded that he could not build a coalition without these two parties. As for the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu “will give up on them for now,” Channel 2 reported, but would invite them to join the government at a later stage — possibly after the legislation on a universal draft is approved.

Yishai said that the insistence on conscripting the ultra-Orthodox reflected the fact that Bennett and Lapid “don’t understand that change must be effected with respect… not by exclusion, polarization and blacklisting.” Yesh Atid and Jewish Home would turn Israeli society “from a society in disagreement into a divided society,” he lamented, calling it “odd” that they were seeking to “impose” rather than cooperate on “momentous changes” for the ultra-Orthodox community.

“Shas will make an effort to be a part of the next coalition,” he said, “but it won’t ‘sell out’ on its values, beliefs and principles in order to partner with people whose sole common goal is to harm the world of Torah.”

Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday expressed hope that the ultra-Orthodox parties would ultimately join the coalition, and said Bennett and Lapid were driven by “ego” and would be “punished by their voters” for their failure to compromise on the universal draft bill.

Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beytenu won 31 seats in the January 22 elections, was given 28 days by President Shimon Peres on February 2 to form a coalition, but has signed up only Tzipi Livni’s six-seat Hatnua party to date. On Saturday, if he needs it, he will be granted a 14-day extension by Peres, which will take him to March 16. If he can claim to muster a majority by then, he could legally put off the swearing-in of his government until March 24, Channel 2 noted on Wednesday, leaving him more than three weeks to get the coalition deals done. However, so late a deadline would conflict with President Barack Obama’s visit, set to start on March 20. US officials have said Obama’s visit would be timed for after a new Israeli government was in place.

The inclusion of Yesh Atid (19 seats) and Jewish Home (12 seats) would give Netanyahu a healthy majority in the 120-member Knesset, though even a Likud-Beytenu, Hatnua, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home coalition faces difficulties. Bennett’s hardline-Orthodox Jewish Home, backed by Yesh Atid, opposes Netanyahu’s deal with Livni, which gives her a prominent role in efforts to negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. Still, Jewish Home officials were reported Wednesday to have assured Netanyahu that their alliance with Yesh Atid “is over” the moment both parties sign coalition deals.

Netanyahu has been wary of conceding to the Jewish Home-Yesh Atid demands, in part because he recognizes that both Bennett and Lapid have ambitions to become prime minister.

Should Netanyahu fail to form a coalition in the time allotted — a scenario deemed unlikely, but not impossible — the president could ask another politician to form a government or Israel could head to new elections.

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