Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual and political head of Shas and one of the greatest Torah sages in a generation, has passed away; he was 93 years old. Yosef was a controversial figure, whose words and deeds garnered both praise and condemnation (for quick takes, see these Times of Israel and New York Times stories on his life, work, and legacy).
His death will have implications for Shas and, from there, for Israeli politics. It’s too soon to say with any certainty what these might be, but we can identify some possibilities. Here are three quick takes on what these might be:
1. The most obvious one is a split in the party, between doves—call it the pro-Aryeh Deri camp—and hawks—call it the Eli Yishai camp. (In reality it’s more complex, composed of several moving parts, including familial and religious divisions, but this simplification works well enough for now.) The former is more open to peace talks (if still suspicious of Palestinian motives and trustworthiness), and more tolerant and inclusive of who can live within the Israeli polity. The latter takes a more hardline approach to peace talks (ranging from opposing them altogether to not seeing a need for them right now), and more intolerant and even xenophobic toward different social groups within Israel.
I think Shas has institutional momentum, and probably won’t split or collapse right away. Leaders will also want to present a unified front in the immediate aftermath of Yosef’s death. Still, a split would be perfectly normal for Israeli religious parties, all of which (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home) are the product of a series of splits and mergers going back to the founding of the state itself; Shas is a breakaway party from Agudat Israel, itself a faction of UTJ. Indeed, all three of today’s religious parties are composed of different factions.
2. Yosef was a towering and unifying figure; he commanded a level of respect and even adoration among his immediate followers and among the broader Sephardi-Mizrachi population that formed Shas’s voter base. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most of these voters supported Likud; their shift away from it helps explain Likud’s decline at the polls. It’s not clear how many of these voters will stay with Shas, particularly given the party’s exclusion from government and its inability to look after its constituents’ needs.
Sephardi voters also tend to be a little more hawkish than not. If Likud, and especially its own hardliners, make a play for these votes, they could well move back to Likud in large enough numbers to gain two or three seats for the party.
3. A broken-down Shas would weaken prospects for a two state solution, if the party falls under the control of hardliners like Yishai and Shlomo Amar or if the party becomes too disorganized to play an important role in politics. In the past Shas’s political and moral support for peace talks was an important legitimizer of them; today, with a rightwing government in power and most peace-oriented parties in the opposition, the latter needs as much support as it can get. Without Shas, they will have a harder time convincing Benjamin Netanyahu that they have the momentum in the Knesset and among the public to actively pursue a final agreement.