Fate of Mideast talks in hands of polarizing rabbi

His party holds the swing vote in the Israeli Cabinet on a U.S. proposal to resume peace talks with Palestine


Daniel Estrin
November 17, 2010 1:48AM (UTC)

The future of the Mideast peace process could rest in the hands of one very undiplomatic man: an outspoken 90-year-old rabbi who recently sparked an uproar by saying the Palestinian president should "perish from the world."

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party is expected to hold the swing vote when Cabinet ministers decide on a U.S. proposal to resume Mideast peace talks. The two Shas ministers participating in the decision are waiting for instructions from the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

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"All decisions go through the rabbi," said Roi Lachmanovitch, a spokesman for the Shas interior minister.

The drama has once again turned the enigmatic rabbi, who has managed to offend Arabs, secular Jews, Holocaust survivors, women and gays with fiery comments over the years, into the familiar role of kingmaker. Politicians from outside his party, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are now lobbying for his support.

Officials in Netanyahu's office said Wednesday that his 15-member Security Cabinet -- a group of senior government ministers -- remains closely divided, with the outcome of the vote hinging on the two Shas members. Amid the uncertainty, Israeli officials said a planned vote for Wednesday had been put on hold.

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Netanyahu spokesman Gidi Schmerling said the Israelis were still waiting for a formal U.S. written proposal outlining the assurances before voting.

Netanyahu is under heavy American pressure to accept the U.S. proposal to freeze most West Bank settlement construction for 90 days in order to persuade the Palestinians to resume peace talks. The goal would be to lead to critical negotiations on Israel's final borders with a future Palestinian state.

In exchange, the U.S. is promising Israel a list of assurances, including a gift of 20 next-generation stealth warplanes and critical diplomatic support at the United Nations, according to Israeli officials.

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Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said there would be no formal reaction to the plan until it is formally presented during a meeting scheduled Wednesday with a senior U.S. envoy.

Palestinians say they will not resume peace talks until Israel stops building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- territory they claim as parts of their future state.

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They agreed to join peace talks just weeks before an earlier, 10-month Israeli slowdown on settlement construction expired on Sept. 26. Those building limits were also intended to promote negotiations.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley refused to comment on whether the U.S. was willing to give Israel assurances in writing.

According to people in Netanyahu's office, seven ministers are in favor of the new three-month building freeze, and six oppose it. Just two ministers haven't indicated how they will vote. Both are from Shas.

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Lachmanovitch, the Shas spokesman, said the ministers would only abstain if the U.S. provides a written guarantee that Israel can continue building in east Jerusalem during the proposed 90-day moratorium, and that after the freeze, Israel will be permitted to resume settlement activity in the West Bank.

The final word rests with their spiritual leader, Yosef, whose followers consider his decisions as binding religious law.

Yosef, who wears sunglasses on his bearded face and dons a turban and gold-embroidered robes, has turned Shas into a formidable political force over the past decade by appealing to the country's sizable population of working-class Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

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A highly respected religious scholar, he is also a polarizing figure in Israeli politics, lashing out against both Palestinians and Israelis in his religious sermons and often leaving Israeli leaders scrambling to apologize for his outrageous remarks.

The rabbi said during a sermon in August that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should "perish from the world" and described Palestinians as "evil, bitter enemies of Israel." He later apologized for the remarks.

In 2007, he said that Israeli soldiers died in battle because they were not religious enough and said the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. suffered "because they have no God."

Despite his often hawkish political stances, Yosef has signaled he would support a withdrawal from the West Bank if it saves lives.

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Yosef has exerted his influence before. In late 2008, Shas forced new elections by turning down an offer to remain in the government after then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned.

Recognizing the rabbi's influence, Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, sent a letter to Yosef on Tuesday imploring him to seek written assurances from the Americans that the 90-day building freeze would be the last.

Another Israeli official confirmed the prime minister's office has been communicating with Yosef. "Of course information has been shared with the Shas leadership," the official said.

Shas spokesman Lachmanovitch denied that the rabbi was approached by the prime minister's staff, or that he was at the center of a lobbying campaign.

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"No one pressures the rabbi," Lachmanovitch said. "He doesn't listen to anyone."


Daniel Estrin

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