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Israel's 'religious right' gains clout, complicating peace with Palestinians

The Shas Party, a key part of Israel's governing coalition, is pushing settlement growth.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

Afternoon prayer: On March 11 in the West Bank, Israelis prayed at the site of a planned expansion of Givat Zeev settlement, seen in the distance.

Ilene R. Prusher

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Givat Zeev, West Bank

On a hilltop far enough from the existing Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev that one needs directions to get here stands the framework of a settlement meant to house up to 750 families.

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Eli Yishai stood on an unfinished balcony of one of the new development's shell homes. He's a key coalition partner of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the leader of the religious party Shas, which is feted by some and decried by others for having broken Israel's "settlement freeze."

"The world might want us to freeze, but there's no doubt that we look at it a bit differently," says Mr. Yishai. "We will make this into a continuous, meaningful block connecting this whole corridor to Jerusalem. I see many possibilities to start building again, according to the demands of natural growth."

A new spate of West Bank settlement construction not only complicates efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, but points to a palpable rightward shift in Shas, a party that used to be considered moderate and amenable to the land-for-peace formula on which any solution to the conflict is based.

Israel's announcement last week that it was going to permit the construction of 750 homes here generated criticism from Palestinians and from around the world. The Bush administration reacted by reminding Mr. Olmert that limiting settlement activity is "a road-map obligation" Israel committed itself to as part of the Annapolis Process, referring to last fall's peace talks in Annapolis, Md.

But in what many here say is a move to lure Shas to stay in the governing coalition, which Shas has been threatening on a regular basis to bolt, Olmert decided to remove the barriers to several already-in-the-works settlement projects and to allow Shas to take the credit. If Shas did leave the coalition, the government would lose its majority and fall apart.

The evolution of Shas

Shas's aging spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, once made a ruling that territorial concessions, were they to save lives and lead to true peace between Arabs and Jews, were acceptable under religious law.

Today, however, the young generation of Shas seems to be less concerned with the ideal backdrop for peacemaking and more driven by coalition politics and the demands of their constituents, who will benefit from new homes at relatively inexpensive prices. The neighborhood to be constructed here will be designated for the ultra-Orthodox, who constitute the fastest-growing portion of the West Bank settler population, according to figures from Peace Now and Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

"There has been a shift, but I think that the main reason is more on the coalition tactical level than the ideological one," says Itzhak Galnoor, a professor of Israeli politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Now Shas is the most right-wing member of the coalition, since Avigdor Lieberman [of Israel Beitainu] left, and it has to justify to its constituency that it stays in the government."

When the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was reached nearly 15 years ago, Shas was a coalition partner of the left-leaning Labor Party. They've been a key piece of the multiparty puzzle in every government since, in large part because their flexible outlook on peacemaking made them an attractive partner. The party's main concern was to win support for towns and schools heavily populated by their supporters, Jews of Middle Eastern origin, or Sephardim, who were long neglected and discriminated against by the Ashkenazi (European) establishment.

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