Aryeh Deri, the former Shas leader, last year completed his court-imposed period of turpitude, opening the way for his return to politics. In an interview yesterday, he was highly critical of the government's economic policy, but said he hasn't decided yet how he will make his political comeback.

The prime minister was expected to announce a package of tax benefits yesterday. Does that solve the problem for you?

Kudos to him for his attentiveness, and the sooner the government upgrades it offered a month and a half ago the better. That's the strength of a democratic regime and of leaders who listen to the public. So I'm glad, but it's just the beginning.

What's missing in this package is the minimum wage, which needs to be fixed, and the critical and complex issue of housing. To me, it's inconceivable that housing is just a dream for most young couples in this country today - even working and relatively well-off couples; I'm not talking here about the weaker sectors of society."

What should the minimum wage be?

Employers said they were willing to pay NIS 4,600 a month. I don't think that's enough, but taken together with more income tax benefits, it's progress. Any sort of progress when it comes to the less well off is important, but let's not confuse ourselves: Higher prices are not just their problem - they also affect the middle class. And even families where both both partners work are having trouble making ends meet.

It's not just the government's fault. Unfortunately, virtually all sectors of the economy have been behaving wildly and irresponsibly. With all the competition we have, there are still monopolies, and the profits the telephone companies make are preposterous. They need to lower them. There's no reason they should be making hundreds of millions a year at the expense of ordinary citizens. The same goes for the banks. There has to be a protest against this. They shouldn't be allowed to do this."

Perhaps the government needs to create regulation to prevent this.

First of all, kudos to the communications and social affairs minister. He has really tried in recent months. He is one of the few who stands up to the lobbyists and all the bigwigs. But these are small victories, not big ones, because when he cracks down in one area, they raise prices in another.

On the one hand, there's a genuine desire to create a free and competitive market not controlled by the government. But unfortunately, when you see that they don't understand and prefer go wild, it may very well be that we'll have no choice but to do this. Take the issue of water prices, which were removed from the Knesset's control, and put into the hands of the big corporations. So the price of water goes up 100-130 percent, and the government pours salt on our wounds by slapping a sales tax on water on top of that. And tomorrow morning, are they going to slap a sales tax on the air we breathe as well? It's not enough that we pay above and beyond the real cost of water? They need to add a sales tax on top of that? The government should start hinting to the big corporations and banks and retailers that there's a limit to what they can take from the people.

We saw what a world war the heads of the gas companies waged against the Sheshinsky Committee so they could make another few billions in profits. For what? How many steaks can you eat in a day? That's why I think the public should continue this protest against all the business leaders who rake in so much money at their expense.

What do you think about Shas leading such a protest?

[As our sages said] "Where the newly repentant stand not even the righteous may set foot." I want to look at the glass as half full; it's a good thing that they've become involved and I hope they persist, because we know how the government operates. Today the prime minister announces steps in the right direction, but next month, we'll get hit from another direction. I hope that now a social front rises up in the Knesset.

Yesterday I heard [broadcaster] Raviv Drucker say that Communications Minister Kahlon got the social affairs portfolio because the prime minister said to him 'I want you to be the opposition to Aryeh Deri' in the social issues party, which, according to the prime minister, I am about to establish, no? So first of all, I'm glad because Minister Kahlon is really very suitable for the job, and I think he'll make a great social affairs minister. If I'm going to influence things from the outside in this way, that would be gratifying. I promise you one thing - that I will not let go of this. When the government deserves to be praised, I will praise it, and when it deserves be criticized, I will criticize it."

So you definitely see yourself as an alternative in the coming election?

I am first of all a citizen with children and grandchildren, and I'm considered middle-class. I receive a pension from the government and thank God, I'm not complaining. But I see it's hard for me, too. I have four children in school and I have to buy them bus passes. Once, I might not have paid attention to this, but today, when you have to buy four bus passes, it's more than NIS 1,000. That's not money for entertainment - it's for rides to school. I myself travel by car. I drive, and I fill up on gas. For me, it's not a deductible expense, and I see how much I spend on gas.

I also do the shopping as much as I can to help my wife. While I walk around with my shopping cart, I see people thinking twice about whether to buy things and I also see how prices are going up all the time.

Is the pension your only income?

Sometimes I manage to earn a bit from some small business deal, whatever I can manage. But, thank God, I consider myself very rich because I make do with my lot and I am happy with my lot. Don't get me wrong. I'm not jealous of anyone.

I think there need to be rich people because the rich create jobs. I also know that fate would have it that poor people remain with us. All I'm saying is that the rich need to be humane and learn how to share with others and also to be satisfied with their lot. A person with a billion dollars, what more does he need, good Lord? Why does he need two million or ten?

The prime minister isn't the only one who thinks you'll head a new social movement. Others have speculated about this as well.

I still haven't decided. I've announced I'm returning to public life. It isn't that I don't want to say anything. I just don't know what the framework will be yet, because I believe the election will take place when it's scheduled, and there's time before the election. I don't want to tie myself down or be enslaved for a long period, when I don't know whether it'll be relevant or not. I prefer to wait and leave my options open.

Including a return to Shas?

I don't want to get into that. When the time comes, I'll see what suits me best, how I can best push what I want to push, and what the best framework for me will be. It will have to be one that pushes social issues and tradition and works to strengthen Judaism in this country.

Regarding poverty, what do you think about the ultra-Orthodox going out to work rather than just studying?

No one needs to convince me about working. Work is not only a social issue but a Jewish value of the first order. At the same time, I think, I believe, that it's important, for the existence of the people of Israel, that there be a group of people who give their soul to studying Torah. We need to strengthen them, this small group. All those who are not part of this small group of scholars, and I mean every ultra-Orthodox man for whom the Torah is not really his entire world, whose real occupation is not studying Torah, and who does not study all day - they can work and find time for Torah, and that's the best thing.

So you favor a change in existing policy?

Absolutely. There absolutely must be a change in policy, but it depends a lot on the government, because you should know there's been a very big change in the ultra-Orthodox community.

There's no doubt that the haredi community has changed but haredi politicians don't agree with this. Look at what happened when MK Amsalem said this.

No, no, Amsalem, no . . . . it depends on how you say it. Look, I'm telling you the same things, but it all depends on how they are said. If at a particular moment . . . you know what, I don't want to get into talking about people . . . forget it. The government, which for good reason wants more haredim to join the work force, must come up with a plan to absorb them.