We often hear that Shas plays kingmaker in Israel's right-leaning political world. The party of religiously observant Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews could agan bump heads with Benjamin Netanyahu's new secular political partner, but the prime minister might still need Shas to survive. And Shelly Yachimovich may yet surpise by luring Shas's economic-focused seats into a coalition with her revived Labor party.
Shas, of course, comes with all kinds of baggage. Even setting it's off-putting theocracy aiside, Shas veers hard right on a range of issues. The party's current political leader, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, looks ready to make one pet hot-button a campaign issue: Israel's African asylum-seekers.
Yishai released a letter to Netanyahu over the weekend complaining about a recent court decision blocking a plan—a plan Yishai pushed—to round-up the refugees and put them in massive detention camps in Israel's south. He wrote that "the problem of infiltration to Israel is one of the most difficult and complicated problems which Israel has dealt with since the founding of the state, a problem which threatens our identity, character, and future."
Despite the clear suffering of refugees, Yishai ironically said the government "remain(s) deaf to their cries"—refering to Israelis disconcerted by the Sudanese and other Africans in their midst. Indeed, Shas draws its support from working class Israelis in the sort of neighborhoods the immigrants are moving to.
Yishai, who callously said the migrants need to be rounded up so that the facilities would not be "built in vain," has been a leading rightist voice on the "infiltrator problem." In 2009, he said asylum-seekers "will bring with them a profusion of diseases." Late in the Spring, at the height of anti-immigrant hysteria, Yishai remarked, "Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn't belong to us, the white man."
A source close to Yishai told the Jerusalem Post that the new letter was aimed at keeping the migrant issue on the front pages going into the election in order to keep Netanyahu's feet to the fire and maybe even snatch up a few more seats.
There'll be a lot to watch going forward. How will the re-emergence of longtime Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who reportedly wants to prioritize socio-economic issues, affect Yishai's posturing on migrant matters? If Shas ditches Likud over the Yisrael Beiteinu merger, could centrist parties or Labor play ball with this right-wing xenophobia? And of course there are larger issues about a growing trend of extreme and racist views in Israel. The anti-immigrant protests in May exploded into violence. That Israel's potential kingmaker is stoking the issue for political gain spells trouble.