Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced yesterday, after a night of consultations regarding rumors that his predecessor Aryeh Deri plans to run for mayor of Jerusalem, that "unequivocally, Shas will back him" if he decides to join the race.
The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party will back Deri even if he runs against another ultra-Orthodox candidate, MK Meir Porush of Agudat Yisrael, Yishai said.
Sources close to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef were previously quoted as saying the rabbi had already pledged the party's support to Deri if he decides to enter the race. However, Porush supporter and Jerusalem City Council member Yossi Deutsch said Yosef told Porush in a meeting this week that he had not even been asked to support a second ultra-Orthodox candidate run for mayor.
When Yosef was asked if he had indeed given Deri the green light, "the rabbi said, 'Not only didn't I say [it], I wasn't even asked,'" said Deutsch. "The fact that there are anonymous people running virtual candidates doesn't mean anything from our perspective."
Yishai's announcement makes Deri more inclined to run for mayor in the November 11 election, but he has yet to make a final decision, Deri supporters said yesterday. They said the indecision stems from the legal factors surrounding his having served two years in prison on corruption charges, which may render him ineligible to run.
Deri examined his legal options yesterday in consultations with veteran jurists, including former justice minister Yaakov Neeman and Navot Tel-Zur, the attorney who represented him on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust. Since the offenses were classified as involving moral turpitude, Deri's criminal record appears to bar him from running for public office until 2009. However, under the law that existed at the time of his conviction, in 1999, this period would have ended last year, which might be enough to persuade a court to approve Deri's participation in the elections.
A Deri supporter said the former Shas leader prefers to get the okay from a court - or, if necessary, from the attorney general or the Central Election Committee - rather than to have to ask President Shimon Peres for a pardon, although he said he thinks Peres would grant it.
If Deri is to run, he would have to register his candidacy by the beginning of October, so he needs to decide in the next few days how he wants to attempt to win approval for an election bid. Only after he decides will the Council of Torah Sages, the party's rabbinical advisory body, convene to discuss the subject.
Porush supporters, meanwhile, are hoping that Deri will not receive permission to run for office, and are trying to minimize the importance of Shas' support for Deri.
"Right now there is one ultra-Orthodox candidate for mayor, and that is Meir Porush," said Deutsch.
Porush supporters met with Shas members and other ultra-Orthodox figures yesterday in an effort to win support for their man, who finished setting up his campaign headquarters in Jerusalem yesterday.
Deri backers said he had anticipated the media circus that resulted from the news that he was considering running for mayor, but said Deri was encouraged by the lack of negative reactions regarding his criminal record.
"In an era of 'cleaning out the stables,' we feared that there would be criticism of him," a supporter said.
But while some Shas activists are getting excited at the prospect of Deri's return to politics, others are more cautious. At least one Shas activist noted that there have been earlier occasions when there were reports of a Deri comeback that never took place. Deri's seeming interest in running for mayor of Jerusalem, the activist said, may just be "a move by Deri to stay relevant in the public context."
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