Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef

"If Olmert makes a decision to divide Jerusalem, we'll quit the government - and so will Yisrael Beiteinu." So says Shas party leader Eli Yishai.

Speaking on Monday on Arutz-7's Hebrew newsmagazine, Yishai - Deputy Prime Minister, leader of the Shas hareidi-religious Shas Party, and the Minister of Industry and Trade - said, "It's true that the Prime Minister has talked about Jerusalem, but I have told him that if Jerusalem is raised as a negotiating issue, we will no longer be in his government."

"The Prime Minister has to make a decision," Yishai said.  "Either he brings up Jerusalem - and then he won't have a government, or he retains Jerusalem as the 'pinnacle of our joy' [based on Psalms 137,6] and doesn't discuss it.  We [Shas] prevented Jerusalem from being brought up at Annapolis; if we can continue to do so, we'll stay, and if not, we'll leave."

Letter to Bush About Pollard

During US President George W. Bush's visit to Israel this week, Yishai plans to give him, via Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a letter from Shas spiritual leader and Israel's former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, appealing for freedom for Jonathan Pollard.

Jonathan Pollard is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in a US prison for passing classified information to a US ally. The data in question included information about Iraq's offensive weapons capabilities. Despite the fact that the median sentence for this offence is 2 to 4 years, Pollard is well into his 23rd year of his life sentence.

Yishai did not say if he had confidence that Olmert would actually hand over the letter to Bush.  It will be recalled that Olmert's predecessor Ariel Sharon, in February 2002, was given a letter on behalf of Pollard signed by 110 Knesset Members to give to Bush, but - it was later found out - never delivered it to its destination.  Similarly a few months later, when Sharon met again with Bush in Washington, the issue of Pollard was not raised.  Olmert, too, has been roundly criticized in the Pollard camp for all but ignoring him. 

Rabbi Yosef's letter explains the importance of the concept and religious obligation of "freeing captives" in Jewish tradition, and the urgency of the Pollard case in particular. 

US Can Pressure - and Can Also Give

Minister Yishai said that in light of US pressure upon Israel to free terrorist prisoners, Israel is well within its rights in asking that Pollard be released:  "The U.S. always asks us to make concessions to the Palestinians, so we can ask for some of our own.  Up to now, we have released only terrorists without blood on their hands - but we've received nothing in return, including [captive soldier] Gilad Shalit. I say that we should separate two things: On the one hand, we must wage talks with the PA very firmly, and not release any prisoners before we also get Shalit. At the same time, with the US asking us to come towards and make gestures towards our enemies, it is clear that the US can also make a gesture for us - namely, Jonathan Pollard."

Asked which terrorist prisoners he would agree to release, Yishai said, "I object to freeing anyone with blood on their hands - but there are others who are also currently not being released whom I would consider releasing.  Young terrorists who still have many years to serve but who did not murder anyone - I would be willing to cede a bit on them in order to get Pollard and Shalit.  The US must understand us and not just make demands; Pollard has been there 22 years, and it's time he comes home."

Yishai also said he has been working on behalf of some of the approximately 25 Jewish security prisoners, though "this has to do with President Peres, of course, and not the Palestinians..."

Asked if these positions are not simply meant to allay the right-wing pressures upon him to quit the government and stop propping it up, Yishai responded, "First of all, let me reassure you: there are no pressures from the right, and even if there are, our decisions are all made by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and the Council of Torah Sages.  If we're in the government, it's in order to influence the events, and if we can't do that, we won't be there.  If they discuss Jerusalem, we will quit in accordance with Rabbi Ovadiah's decision...  We and [the other rightward-leaning party] Yisrael Beiteinu are working in cooperation, though we each make our own decisions.  I believe that if we quit the government, they will do so as well."

Olmert's government is based on the support of the five coalition parties' 77 MKs: Kadima (29), Labor (19), Shas (11), Yisrael Beiteinu (11), and Pensioners (7).  If both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) were to quit, the government would be left without a majority of the 120-member Knesset legislature.

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