The atmosphere that is accompanying the release of Aryeh Deri from Ma'asiyahu Prison evokes the moment in Westerns when the gang of bad guys rides into town and the peaceful folks run for cover and ask themselves, What are they going to wreck this time? What will they destroy? What will they make a mess of?
What is this saintly figure, Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the Shas party, going to get into this time around, the folks of the State of Israel are asking themselves. Will he undermine the rule of law even more than he already has? Where will he sow hate now? What intrigues will he devise? And where is the revolution of ignorance and backwardness - in which Deri takes so much pride and which he has promised to go on leading - going to lead the country?
The fact is that this exemplary prisoner, who has had a third of his sentence for corruption charges cut, spent many of his furloughs making missionary broadcasts on pirate radio stations urging parents to sign up their children for back-to-religion institutions. It is an enigma whether he truly believes that this industry of ignorance is what is meant by restoring the ancient glory, or whether it is his revenge on the state that sent him to prison - is he bent on dismantling the state from within and placing it firmly in the Third World?
Deri paid his debt to society, said MK Yosef Paritzky from Shinui - the party that is the avowed adversary of Shas - but the truth is that Deri paid for the less destructive of his deeds. He did not pay for the devastation he wreaked on the fabric of Israeli society and for the ruin he caused its social pact.
We have become so accustomed to statements about Deri's charisma and his political genius that no one bothers to examine anymore what the price of his electoral machinations was. We have already forgotten that Deri achieved Shas's 10 Knesset seats in the 1996 elections by disseminating amulets, blessings and superstitious beliefs on a massive scale. He oiled the local government elections of 1998 with mini-bottles of soya sauce bearing a photograph of the aged kabbalist Rabbi Kedouri (who is another of the genies Deri pried out of the bottle and whom no one knows how to get back into it, let alone close it). What vast hatred for the judicial system and for the rule of law Deri sowed in the 1999 elections with his "J'accuse" cassettes, this time on the way to 17 Knesset seats. And with what great enthusiasm he launched into the ethnic struggle against the immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
True, Eli Yishai, who succeeded Deri as chairman of Shas, lacks that type of charisma. Yishai is not a saint and he needs no acquittals. He is just an ordinary slick politician who makes a habit of not going into court as a defendant and who will never be suspected of trying to finagle the appointment of an attorney general of his choosing. He is not persecuted and he does not whip out demons to intimidate the electorate, nor does he ruin the reputation of an entire ethnic community by claiming that he and the community are one and the same and have an identical fate. Yishai is a responsible individual.
Of course, we are also hearing the argument that Deri is the genius who scored achievements for Shas, whereas Yishai is a nonentity under whose leadership everything is falling apart. Deri, for those who have forgotten, was the person who left the Shas education network, Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani, with a deficit of a hundred million shekels. It was he who led Shas to the brilliant political failure in the so-called "smelly maneuver," when he showed that he was incapable even of predicting the reaction of his political patron, Rabbi Schach.
It was Deri who promised to join the Likud government in 1992, when it was the Labor Party under Yitzhak Rabin that won ("Shas is going with the Likud"). It was Deri who did not support the Likud in 1996 when Benjamin Netanyahu won ("neither right nor left" was the slogan) and who was an ardent backer of Netanyahu in 1999 ("Shas-Netanyahu, Netanyahu-Shas") when Labor under Ehud Barak won. There's no doubt about it, the man is a political wizard. It was Deri who left to his successor a boycotted party that was removed in disgrace from the Interior Ministry and a deputy minister in the Education Ministry who was given the powers of a potted plant.
True, at the polls Shas grew from one failure to the next and from one calumny to another. But this was due in particular to a factor that Deri's followers rely on their public not to notice. Deri brought about Shas's major electoral achievements not only by means of the hatred he projected and the superstitions he disseminated; in large measure, these gains were due to the direct election of the prime minister. That method made it possible for former Likud voters to express their right-wing inclinations in the ballot for the prime minister and their ethnic and religious-traditionalist identity by voting for Shas. The next elections will see a return to the single-ballot method. Shas will suffer a setback with either Deri or Yishai at its head. It will suffer a defeat because of the system.
Yishai's good fortune is that the Shas version of a central committee - which in Shas' case consists of one person, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party's spiritual mentor - is better than his public at viewing the situation realistically. He knows that Yishai is not a political prestidigitator and that Shas is the better for it. The acrobat Deri caused Rabbi Yosef a lot of grief when he turned the rabbi's party into a symbol of corruption. Everyone remembers the famous press conference when Rabbi Yosef called out "Aryeh is in the right" and told the Channel 1 reporter Niztan Chen, to "leave to the outside." Our sages have the following interpretation of this event: what the rabbi actually intended to say was that "Aryeh is in the right to leave to the outside"; "in the right" being a euphemism with the opposite of its literal meaning; "to the outside" means "outside Shas."
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