At first glance, Yacov Ben-Ami, a fish merchant who emigrated from Morocco 50 years ago, seems an unlikely person to alter the balance of political power in Israel.
Yet the diminutive Mr. Ben-Ami is doing exactly that. He is among an estimated more than 100,000 Sephardic Jews with roots in Islamic countries who, though not orthodox in their religious practice, have switched their loyalty to Shas, a Sephardic party guided by a revered rabbi, Ovadia Yosef.
Such switching of loyalties is among the many things that have contributed to the rapid rise of Shas, from an obscure party in the 1980s, to a major political powerhouse. Shas' leaders say their main tasks are to defend Jewish values, and their strident approach has put them at the center of a power struggle that threatens Israel's ruling coalition.
Yesterday, Israel's attorney general began an unprecedented investigation into whether Mr. Yosef incited followers to violence when he called a Cabinet minister satan, among other epithets.
Most Shas supporters affiliate out of ethnic solidarity, and see their party as a response to years of discrimination against Sephardic Jews in education, jobs, housing, and other areas by Israel's mostly Ashkenazi, or European, Jewish elite.
"You need a Sephardic party to help the Sephardim," says Ben-Ami about his move from the hard-line party, Likud.
"Our job is to return the nation to its God," Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, a Shas preacher, said during a sermon Saturday night. His warmly received remarks were devoted largely to flaying the perceived spiritual emptiness and decadence of secular Israelis.
Many secular Israelis harbor fears about Shas' righteous tone, and worry that the party's growth could upset the religious-secular balance in a society lacking constitutional provisions for separating religion and state.
But Prime Minister Ehud Barak is keenly aware that the party carries with it considerable political capital. Barak has indicated repeatedly that he sees Shas' backing as indispensable to mustering public support for a peace agreement with Syria.
"Shas has momentum," says Asher Arian, a political scientist at Haifa University. "And they have an image of momentum."
The Sephardic party, founded in 1984, climbed from six Knesset seats in 1992 to 10 in 1996 to 17 in elections last May, a result that put it within striking distance of Likud (19 seats), the country's second-largest party. Barak's One Israel has 26 of the 120 seats.
For Shas leaders, the surge of power appears to be emboldening. During the last three weeks, the party has rattled Barak's coalition and the liberal Meretz party with a series of bitter and bellicose pronouncements. Barak has responded with forebearance, apparently because he is counting on the at times dovish Rabbi Yosef, to provide eventual religious sanction for a possible return to Syria of the Golan Heights, occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.
But Rabbi Yosef has his own agenda: ensuring that the party, not the state, controls the Shas school network, which serves as a magnet for recruiting parents and children.
Last month, Yosef outraged Israeli left-wingers and secularists by likening Education Minister Yossi Sarid, head of Meretz, to Haman, one of the foremost villains in Jewish history and added that Mr. Sarid's name and memory be "blotted out."
This remark was initially perceived among many secular Israelis, and later by the state, as a possible call to murder the minister. Yosef was quick to issue statements that no harm should be done to Sarid. Shas does not have a history of violence.
Motivating the statements, say analysts, is a combination of genuine anger at Ashkenazi establishment figures like Sarid and the desire to intimidate Meretz - and impress Barak - in the tug of war over education prerogatives and funding.
"Sarid should not intervene in our affairs, and he should stop being a Satan, an obstacle to us," said Nissim Zeev, a Shas member of parliament. Yael Kessler, a spokeswoman for Sarid, countered that there is no discrimination against the Shas school system.
Shas' stridency prompted Hebrew University political scientist Zeev Sternhell to warn that the party is seeking to set up a "state within a state" in line with its religious norms.
"Shas is an element of fragmentation in our society, and such fragmentation is dangerous," says Sternhell. "You should let people live their lives, but you can't afford to have two or three systems within the society. You can't provide Shas with the instruments of power to organize independently of the society as a whole."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society