In March 1999, on the night before the ruling in the case against Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri, sleep eluded the Shas leadership. Deri was accused of embezzlement, but the feeling, both before and after the verdict, was that Shas itself as well as all its supporters were the ones in the defendant's seat. Shas was about to enter a period of huge rallies and protest songs and bumper stickers that pumped it up to its most powerful position ever, and the party went on to win 17 seats in the next Knesset election.
Nine years later, ahead of today's ruling in the bribery case against Shas' Shlomo Benizri, the feelings are altogether different. For years, Benizri was one of the Sephardi party's most prominent ministers and MKs, with some viewing him as its next leader. But these days, the party is different from how it was at the time of the Deri verdict. Today it is more establishmentarian, less electrifying. Whatever the court's decision, Benizri will win the full support of the party's leadership, but a conviction won't lead to any huge rallies.
Deri managed to turn his personal conviction into that of an entire population, which felt persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity. Not so Benizri. Ahead of the last Knesset elections, right after it became known that he was going to be charged with taking bribes and breach of trust, Benizri slowly began to make his way down to the faction's back benches. In February 2006, the Shas Council of Torah Sages pushed Benizri, who had been one of its most prominent representatives, down from No. 2 on the Knesset list to No. 6.
It was said then that this happened because Benizri wanted to lower his profile, but it certainly accorded with Shas chairman Eli Yishai's plan to arm his party with a new, clean image, after several of its members had been convicted of corruption. All Shas candidates were made to sign an internal party document in which they committed to resign from the Knesset if they were indicted during their terms of office.
"We want to be stricter with ourselves than others are," is how Yishai described the "new Shas." All the same, Yishai said Benizri remained on the list because he had been wronged and "until it's proven otherwise, he's innocent."
Benizri was born in Haifa 48 years ago and became religious after completing his army service. As a rabbi in the back-to-religion movement who taught at Rabbi Reuven Elbaz's Or Hahaim yeshiva, he was placed on the Shas Knesset list at the age of 31.
Since then, he has been a media star, a provocateur, a regular presenter on Shas radio stations and a frequent guest on television news shows to explain the comments of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. There were those who pinpointed him as Deri's successor - until he followed in Deri's path a bit too closely and was investigated on corruption charges.
It seems that Shas leaders will be giving Benizri their full support. Benizri said he was "continuing as normal."
"All my regular activities are continuing, because I've done everything we needed to do in the trial," he said on his way to the weekly Torah lecture he delivers to a group of newly religious in Yavneh. "Now we need to wait. I have so much faith in myself and in the creator of the world, so I try to focus on action."
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