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Israel's 'religious right' gains clout, complicating peace with Palestinians

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But in what many here say is a move to lure Shas to stay in the governing coalition, which Shas has been threatening on a regular basis to bolt, Olmert decided to remove the barriers to several already-in-the-works settlement projects and to allow Shas to take the credit. If Shas did leave the coalition, the government would lose its majority and fall apart.

The evolution of Shas

Shas's aging spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, once made a ruling that territorial concessions, were they to save lives and lead to true peace between Arabs and Jews, were acceptable under religious law.

Today, however, the young generation of Shas seems to be less concerned with the ideal backdrop for peacemaking and more driven by coalition politics and the demands of their constituents, who will benefit from new homes at relatively inexpensive prices. The neighborhood to be constructed here will be designated for the ultra-Orthodox, who constitute the fastest-growing portion of the West Bank settler population, according to figures from Peace Now and Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

"There has been a shift, but I think that the main reason is more on the coalition tactical level than the ideological one," says Itzhak Galnoor, a professor of Israeli politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Now Shas is the most right-wing member of the coalition, since Avigdor Lieberman [of Israel Beitainu] left, and it has to justify to its constituency that it stays in the government."

When the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was reached nearly 15 years ago, Shas was a coalition partner of the left-leaning Labor Party. They've been a key piece of the multiparty puzzle in every government since, in large part because their flexible outlook on peacemaking made them an attractive partner. The party's main concern was to win support for towns and schools heavily populated by their supporters, Jews of Middle Eastern origin, or Sephardim, who were long neglected and discriminated against by the Ashkenazi (European) establishment.

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