In January, when Labor MK Isaac Herzog was forced to resign from the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu festively declared that he himself would also serve as the social affairs minister. Less than a day later, Aryeh Deri said on Radio Kol Hai that he was returning to politics and considering starting a new social movement. Netanyahu quickly handed over the Social Affairs Ministry to Moshe Kahlon, whom he said was the most worthy person for the job. "I didn't want this portfolio to be vacant for even a single day," Netanyahu said afterward.
In June the former Shas leader officially announced that he was starting a non-sectoral social movement called Tikkun (Repair ). This week, when several protest activists invited Deri to speak to them in the encampments, he said it wasn't right for him to walk around there during bein hametzarim (the three-week period of mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av, which falls next Tuesday ), but maybe afterward he would come. In his close circle, composed mainly of a hard core of supporters that has followed him since the beginning of his career, they claim that "people in the field are dying to meet Aryeh," and that he, for his part, is very interested in meeting the activists and also happy that the protest erupted among the ostensibly well-to-do classes.
Deri's dream, say his friends, is to start a party devoted to dealing with social and welfare issues that will represent the "missing" Israeli majority - silent and sane; secular, religious and traditional - whose members share some common denominators despite differences of opinion on political issues.
It is no coincidence, he recalled in an interview with Haaretz this week, that when he tried to run for mayor of Jerusalem in 2008 he had said: "I'm a civic leader." And he considers himself to be very Israeli: He is very familiar with the country's various sectors and knows how to talk to each of them in its own language. He's pragmatic. Moderate. And now, say his supporters, also mature and experienced - and free of all the anger and bitterness that overcame him after his colleagues in Shas in effect kicked him out of the movement.
As strange as it seems, it shouldn't be hard for him to attract the secular public. Based on surveys conducted in recent months, quite a number either responded negatively or expressed doubt when asked whether they would vote for a social-issues movement, but when asked how they'd vote if such a movement were headed by Deri, the answer became affirmative, to the tune of support worth six to eight Knesset seats.
Thus, Deri's real problem will be with his own ultra-Orthodox. To attract them to a non-sectoral social party, he will have to alter certain normative perceptions related to political culture in Haredi society: He will have to lessen its dependency on rabbinical authority, and convince members that it is possible to make certain alliances with secular Jews and Arabs.
Even if he may yearn now for the days when he dared to be portrayed as a liberal interior minister who overturned the censorship of films and plays, he knows that to succeed in politics he still has to remember who and what he is. In brief, say his associates, Aryeh won't shave off his beard for you, nor will he remove his black skullcap.
Anyone who looks at him closely first sees Deri's legendary partner to the establishment of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Political pundits seem to think that as long as Yosef is alive he decides what happens in Shas. But in spite of the image of vitality with which Interior Minister Eli Yishai and others portray him, Yosef, who will be 91 next month, is no longer involved in everyday life in general or in politics in particular. Furthermore, if Deri eventually decides that it's more expedient to split Shas and head what he hopes will be its larger faction, the movement's Council of Torah Sages will likely decide to allow him to do so. Yishai and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias will then be left with the hard-core support of the yeshiva world, while Deri will try to restore the glory of the traditionalist religious public, which has since slid over to Likud and Kadima. And if Yosef dies before the next election, say Deri's supporters, there will be no war of succession. Everyone will line up behind him.
For his part, Netanyahu is not afraid of the seats Deri could take away from him, but he is worried, justifiably, that Deri will establish political alliances that will destroy the safe bloc the prime minister has constructed for himself. Deri's closest friend for over 15 years has been Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Deri is convinced of his own ability to bridge the ideological gap between himself and the Yisrael Beiteinu leader. Clearly, their personal friendship softens Lieberman's image in Deri's eyes, and the latter is convinced that the tough politician is more pragmatic and sober than he seems.
Deri believes the flood of racist laws that Lieberman is proposing are "candies" that the minister - whose hands are tied because he's trying to repel criminal investigations and strike a plea bargain - is distributing to the Russian community as a form of compensation.
What interests Deri now is the day following the next elections, whenever they take place. Then he will suggest to Netanyahu to join him and form a national unity government with Kadima, perhaps with Labor. Almost everyone will agree, he thinks, and then it will be possible to give Netanyahu an advanced lesson in economics and social welfare.
And afterward? The sky's the limit. The renewed Shas, or Tikkun, will restore the movement to that point in time when it seemed it was capable of representing not only itself and its yeshiva students. Specifically, Deri's disciples dream that he will return to that moment in the late 1980s when he was seen as a man destined to become premier. And if that's not a tikkun - then what is?
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