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.
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But over the past decade, following the Al Aqsa intifada and the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Shas has swung right. This may be in part an effort by Shas to boost its standing among more nationalist Israeli voters, regardless of ethnic origin. This trend suggests that Shas is working to attract supporters away from the right-wing Likud as well as the National Religious Party, both of which have been socked in recent years with a significant loss of Knesset, or parliament, seats and political prestige.Skip to next paragraph
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"Shas was centrist and very mild on settlements, and it has moved because of the people who vote for it," Dr. Galnoor notes. "The leadership has always been more dovish. But in the last 10 years, it has moved to the right." Galnoor says that this may be a kind of positioning ahead of the elections, which are scheduled for 2009 but are likely to be called for next year instead. Shas won 10 seats in the last Knesset elections, down from 14.
"They made a decision that this is where the votes could come from ... and that being a little more right wing couldn't hurt them," Galnoor adds. "It's a gamble in a way, to try and get some of the votes that may otherwise go to the Likud," or other religious parties.
Shlomo Ben-Izri, a Knesset member from Shas and former cabinet minister, says that Shas's ideology has not changed, but that times have. "We're not in a great situation anyway. You can't say that these settlements will be a reason for a renewal of terrorism, because there is terrorism anyway," he says, referring to the recent shooting at a Jerusalem seminary by a Palestinian gunman.
"We go by halacha [religious law] and our spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef. He supported the Oslo Accords, but only if it will bring real peace," says Mr. Ben-Izri. "But today, after what's happening in and around Gaza, and what's happening on the Palestinian side, we don't see any partner. So it's the peace process we must freeze."
The settlement conundrum
It is hard to know to what extent Shas's settlement drive reflects that of the entire Israeli government, which has been sending mixed signals. Olmert said Monday that Israel would not stop building over the Green Line – Israel's pre-1967 boundaries – in and around Jerusalem. "There will be places where there will be construction, or additions to construction, because these places will remain in Israel's hands."
Palestinians are deeply dismayed by the moves. The Jerusalem-based Al Quds newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday that Olmert's statements are "a challenge to the American criticism, and will lead to more complications in the inactive peace process."
Nabil Abu Rudenieh, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, said Israel was undermining US efforts. "The situation needs a frank and clear US position against the settlements policy."
In the cluster of new apartments that have just been finished in the past six months, halfway between the existing Givat Zeev settlement and the new 750-unit neighborhood, a few young couples with children have already moved in. Arielle Peretz, who moved here with her husband two months ago, views infrequent bus service as the only drawback.
"I wouldn't have chosen to move here because it's far from the city," she explains, glancing over her new living room, which looks out to the pretty, terraced hillsides tended by Palestinian neighbors across the valley. "We came because it's so much more expensive to buy in Jerusalem. There will never be peace anyway. How many years have we been fighting?"