On points, Eli Yishai might just have won. He will probably be number one on Shas’ list of candidates for the next Knesset. He forced Aryeh Deri to admit that his intention to set up an independent party was an empty threat, and because of him, Deri was forced to give up on his demand to be party chairman.
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Yishai is expected to continue to pull many major strings in Shas, but despite all these achievements, one cannot underestimate the blow he was dealt on Wednesday: after 13 years, he is no longer Shas chairman. Even worse, as far as he’s concerned, he should expect the immediate future to be plagued by Deri’s long shadow, as he was during Netanyahu’s first government. The experience Yishai has gained and the independence he has cultivated won’t help now, and one must sincerely doubt whether he’ll ever be Shas chairman again.
Yishai was removed, despite being a good chairman, as far as Shas was concerned. Without delving into his political agenda, he had no political failures. He attained 11 Knesset seats in his first election campaign and 12 in his second. In the last government, Shas was a major player with four ministers. He reduced the party’s deficit, achieved stability, found posts for many of his supporters and appointed heads of religious councils. No more, but no less.
Eli Yishai’s removal seems strange when taking into account his special relations with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader who safeguarded his leadership for the past 13 years, more than he ever did for any other party leader.
Those familiar with this relationship testify that Yosef treated Yishai like a beloved son. For years now, from every stage, Yosef embraced Yishai with the verse “in my home, he is the most loyal,” a verse originally reflecting the relationship between God and Moses. Yosef castigated whoever dared criticize Yishai, and rejected all the calls to reinstate Deri as party chief.
Yet Yishai still lost the leadership battle.
Sources close to Yosef say that he always recognized Deri’s qualities and loved him too, but over the years, the rabbi also became somewhat suspicious of Deri. He had good reason to believe that Deri was bypassing his authority, manipulating him and overshadowing him. Cynics would point out that Yosef was, in reality, Deri’s number two. Yosef had no choice but to remove Deri in 1999 after he was convicted of bribe-taking and fraud and sent to prison for three years. But sources close to Rabbi Ovadia claim that it was also a moment of liberation.
Yishai worked his way into Yosef’s heart by behaving in exactly the opposite way, with endless docility and extreme loyalty. He kept nothing from Yosef. He never missed the morning prayer with the rabbi, and after praying together, the two conferred in private, with Yishai updating Yosef on every single issue on Shas’ agenda. Yishai never missed an opportunity to consult with Yosef, and arranged endless meetings between Yosef and senior secular politicians and IDF officers. When Yishai would seek “biblical guidance” from Yosef on political or even personal matters, he was always dead serious.
This is only one aspect of the fundamental difference between Yishai and Deri, two completely dissimilar individuals. Deri is an arrogant political wizard. Yishai is a loyal and restrained student, who tried to change Shas’ image as a corrupt party.
He always enjoyed what Deri always lacked: the support of Yehudit Yosef, Rabbi Ovadia's daughter-in-law who once ran his office, and has since applied her power in Yishai’s favor, together with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Yosef. Now Yishai has lost her too, and found out that his loyalty and special relations with Shas’ spiritual leader were just not enough. In fact, his complete obedience might have been his downfall.
Moshe Yosef might have played a major role in Yishai’s change of fortune. While the two young families – Yishai and Yosef – remained close, the emergence of Ariel Atias a few years ago put a small dent in their relations.
Moshe Yosef and Atias got closer, and the latter strengthened his direct connections with Ovadia Yosef, originally established when Atias directed Yosef’s kashrut supervision organization, Badatz Yosef. At the same time, Deri began about two years ago to carefully carve his way back through Moshe Yosef, who, until that point, had been the nemesis of Deri’s supporters, since he and his wife Yehudit helped establish Yishai’s leadership. Deri knew that Moshe Yosef was his only way to get back to Shas.
Apart from Deri and Atias’ obvious interests, and the interests and connections of Moshe Yosef himself, the rabbi’s youngest son was subject to numerous arguments and heavy pressure regarding Yishai’s leadership. At every opportunity, Moshe Yosef will say he is doing everything possible to preserve Shas’ unity and his father’s health, which suffered as a result of the fierce internal struggles.
Still, sources aware of the long negotiations leading to the new leadership format insist that Atias and Moshe Yosef also discussed the day when Rabbi Ovadia will no longer be around.
Moshe Yosef feared that if Deri were to establish a new independent movement that would compete with Shas, the threat could be handled for now (although at a heavy price), but after his father exits the stage, the new movement would surge forward at Shas’ expense. Moshe Yosef knows Yishai is loyal, but decided to prepare strategically for the day when he would no longer have anyone to be loyal to. When that happens, Moshe Yosef feared, the Sephardic camp will fly apart at the seams.
For all these reasons, Moshe Yosef gambled on Deri, as someone who could keep the camp together over the long run. Now, as Rabbi Ovadia is getting even older, Deri’s boundless charisma is once again a treasure. Yehudit Yosef also toed the line, even if her doubts still persist. She still bears the scars of the all-out war between Deri and Yishai in 1999, a war that was never officially terminated.
It is doubtful that the couple actually crossed lines and joined the Deri camp. It would be more precise to say that under current conditions, they were convinced that Deri is the better long-term bet. As part of their pact, Moshe Yosef demanded from Deri a personal commitment concerning their cooperation. Moshe Yosef constantly referred to his father’s health and Shas’ unity, but also mentioned his halakhic enterprises and the Shas institutions, including the political arm, the municipal chief rabbis and other concerns. Moshe Yosef is also anxious to safeguard Shas’ existence as a business, especially the Badatz Yosef, which he personally has been managing in recent years. This enterprise is supposed to provide a livelihood for hundreds of families, including the Yosef family. Aryeh Deri promised to protect all these interests as well.