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News Analysis: Labor’s Race to Form a Government Hinges Once Again on a Single Rabbi

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While Shimon Peres struggles against a fast-approaching deadline to form a Labor-led government and Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud bloc do everything possible to prevent him, the governance of the nation may depend on the decisions of one man.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 70-year-old the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox, largely Sephardic Shas party, seems at this juncture to hold in his hands the political futures of both the prime minister-designate and the acting prime minister, as well as their respective parties.

The arithmetic is such that Shas’ five Knesset votes are crucial for both sides.

Neither can attain a majority to form a government without them. And Shas, for its part, must decide either to support one of them or, by withholding support, force both into a national unity government again.

That possibility has been raised amid talk in Labor circles of replacing Peres with the party’s more widely accepted No. 2 leader, former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In a new Labor-Likud alliance, the popular Rabin would rotate the office of prime minister with Shamir, just as Peres and Shamir did after the inconclusive 1984 elections.

But such developments are presently in the realm of conjecture.

Rabbi Yosef continues to be ardently courted by both sides. He met with Shamir on Wednesday morning and was to hold a meeting Friday with Peres and Rabin.

Yosef has undertaken to convene Shas’ Council of Torah Sages well before Peres’ mandate expires on April 26, in order to guide them to a choice between conflicting ideologies.

CONFLICTING PRESSURES WITHIN SHAS

The stakes are high for Shas as well. If it overplays its hand, Likud and Labor could in disgust agree to dissolve the hung Knesset and call new elections.

In that event, Shas cannot be sure of repeating its meteoric success as a brand new party in 1984, when it won four seats, or the consolidation of 1988, when it picked up two more — one of which was lost last year when Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz defected from the party.

Therefore, as Rabbi Yosef ponders his role in deciding the nation’s future, the eminent Sephardic halchic expert finds himself prey to conflicting pressures.

Strongest among them, perhaps, is the still-resounding echo of his own televised address to the nation after the Shamir government fell March 15 in a no-confidence vote.

“I must be able to stand in judgment before God for innocent blood that might be spilled.” Yosef declared with passion.

He explained that for him, peace and the prevention of needless bloodshed were the overriding moral and religious considerations. He had therefore demanded from Shamir a favorable reply to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s proposals for launching an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

When Shamir refused such a commitment, Yosef instructed Shas’ Knesset faction to absent itself from the confidence vote, thereby ensuring the downfall of the Likud-led government.

It was not a surprise shift by the former Sephardic chief rabbi, who is also president of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals. For years, he has written and argued that the halachic principle of “pikuach nefesh,” that there is no higher moral deed than saving lives, applies to the land-for-peace equation in the Middle East.

PERSUASION BY MANIFESTO

It was to reawaken that determination in Rabbi Yosef’s heart that Labor this week launched an energetic effort of persuasion.

A long list of dovish Sephardic leaders, including academics and local religious council chairmen, signed their names to manifestoes published in the press urging Yosef to “support a peace government under Shimon Peres.”

Delegations of dignitaries from Israel and abroad were encouraged by Labor to call on the rabbi in his book-lined study in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh section to offer the same advice.

But there are strong countervailing pressures, some generated by Likud activists, but others by the Shas rank and file, who have always seen themselves part of the “national camp” led by the Likud.

Yet Shas politicians are divided as to the strength of this grass-roots sentiment.

In particular, Yosef’s high-profile visit to Cairo last year as the guest of President Hosni Mubarak is thought in some Shas quarters to have deeply impressed much of the rank and file.

But there is pressure from another quarter, which Yosef will have to overcome if he is to line up behind Peres and Labor.

Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the two-seat Degel HaTorah party, has taken a wholly unexpected pro-Likud stance during this coalition crisis. He instructed his party to conclude an agreement with Shamir and to have no truck with Labor.

Schach has much credibility and influence in Shas, which he actively helped found in 1984 as a first Orthodox breakaway from Agudat Yisrael.

Moreover, as the eldest sage in the “haredi” yeshiva world, his moral writ runs far beyond his own Ponevezh yeshiva and his town, Bnei Brak.

A SPLIT WITH DEGEL?

Beneath the surface, there has been growing discomfort in Yosef’s close circle at the dogmatic position taken by Schach, who, if anything, has been even more dovish than Yosef over the years on the territorial issue.

Indeed, in his own controversial speech to the Degel convention in Tel Aviv last month, Schach reiterated his consistent belief that “territory does not matter.”

Nevertheless, he ruled that Labor, with its “pig-breeding, rabbit-eating kibbutzim,” is inherently more anti-religious than the Likud. The implication was that his political support would go unwaveringly to Shamir.

Yosef, a few days later, made a point of noting during a talk to his followers that Shamir “cats treife food no less than anyone else.”

Sensitive political observers saw that as the first sign that the alliance between these two very different rabbinical authorities — the Lithuanian-born “gaon” (Talmudic genius) and the Sephardic “posek” (halachic authority) — might be coming unstuck.

Peres doubtless is praying this week that it will rupture, while Shamir and the Likud are desperately trying to see that it does not.

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