Shas Party: When Jerusalem Talks Start, We Quit

The Shas party has decided it's not waiting for an agreement to be concluded, and will quit the coalition as soon as Jerusalem talks begin.

Hillel Fendel ,

Shas MKs
Shas MKs

The Council of Torah Sages of the Shas party, headed by former Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, has decided: Once government representatives start talking with the PA about splitting Jerusalem, Shas leaves the government coalition.

The right-wing camp and many Shas supporters have long awaited this decision, and especially over the past two weeks since Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) left the government.  Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman announced on Jan. 16 that he was resigning his position as Minister for Strategic Affairs and leading his party out of the government coalition in protest of the start of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over so-called "core issues."  Those issues include Jerusalem, final status borders and the so-called 'right of return' of hundreds of thousands of Arabs and their descendants to Israel.

The Shas decision was made Sunday afternoon at a Torah Sages Council meeting in the home of Rabbi Yosef in Har Nof, Jerusalem.  Shas leader Eli Yishai, Minister of Industry and Trade, was also present, briefing the rabbis on the planned timetable of the talks with the PA.

At present, the government coalition headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert numbers 66 Knesset Members - a majority of the Israeli Parliament's 120 members.  If and when Shas and its 11 MKs quit, Olmert will head a minority government vulnerable to a simple no-confidence motion in the Knesset. 

Olmert is also facing another political crisis this week: Wednesday's release of the Winograd Report on the government's handling of the Second Lebanon War. The report is expected to criticize Olmert personally; it will not call for him to step down, but it is likely to lead to a wave of public pressure for him to do so.

If Olmert resigns, new elections need not necessarily follow; he could simply be replaced by a fellow Kadima Party member.  If he brings the government down with him, however, or if the Knesset votes to disperse itself or votes no-confidence in the government, new elections must be held in 90 days.  In such a case, the government becomes a transitional government, and ministers and parties cannot resign or join.  Alternatively, the leading parties can decide on an agreed-upon date for new elections.

Given the dramatic ramifications of the Winograd Report to be issued two days from now, together with the Shas decision to quit as soon as Jerusalem is mentioned to the PA negotiators, the coming days and weeks are expected to be politically tense.