The Return of the King: Arye Dery's Unlikely Redemption

You could say everybody loves a good story of redemption, but Israelis don’t believe in fairy tales. So why is Arye Deri so popular again?

Gil Eliahu

One morning, almost 20 years ago, Israeli journalist Mordechai Gilat was roused from sleep by the phone. "Moti," an unrecognizable voice said, "You're in a pickle. Arye Dery has many friends in your newspapers. He knows who you're talking with and what you're talking about. He has people everywhere, even in the Shin Bet."

BHOL B'Hadrei Hadarim

This is just one of many anecdotes in "The DeryCurse," published earlier this year by Gilat. The bestselling book vividly recaps 13 years when Gilat and Dery's paths collided, with Gilat acting as the courageous journalist exposing outrageous corruption by one of Israel's strongest politicians and Dery acting as a very powerful man willing to do whatever it takes to get the monkey off his back. At one point, Gilat claims, Dery even went to a Kabbalist in Jerusalem to put a curse on him. The curse, if it was ever made, did not succeed.

This all could have been just a stroll down memory lane, if not for Dery's triumphant return to politics a month ago after 13 years away, two of which were spent in Maasiyahu Prison for a bribery conviction. Suddenly, Gilat's book went from the "history" pile to "current affairs."

Arye Dery isn't your everyday politician. To date, he's Israel's youngest cabinet member ever – just 29 when he was appointed interior minister. Known for his wit, charm and gentlemanly demeanor, he soared meteorically in the early 1990s to unprecedented heights for an ultra-Orthodox politician. On the way, he singlehandedly turned a small Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party named Shas into one of Israel's major political players, empowering two minority groups that had never before had such power: the Haredim and the Mizrahim. Even after his eventual downfall, Dery is still a near demi-god in the eyes of many. His charisma is legendary but so is his corruption.

The kingmaker

Dery was born in Meknes, Morocco in 1959. He immigrated to Israel with his parents and brothers in 1968, settling in Bat Yam. The young Dery was sent to an Ashkenazi yeshiva and quickly became fluent in Yiddish. At an early age, he met the man who would become his mentor, Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of Shas. In 1981, he married Yafa Cohen, a fierce, dominant woman raised in an orphanage and adopted by a couple of Holocaust survivors from New York. Her adoptive parents, the Werderbers, supported the young couple financially for a number of years.

In 1984, Dery became one of the founders of Shas, which was created in protest over the meager representation of and discrimination against Sephardi Jews in Agudat Yisrael, the only ultra-Orthodox party at the time. He was 25-years-old.

From there, Dery ascended at lightning speed: by 27 he was director general of the interior ministry and, at 29, the interior minister. His charm and political prowess were key to his rise, but he was also at the right place at the right time and he knew it: With the controversial Oslo peace process in full swing, his support was crucial to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Dery quickly became the kingmaker of Israeli politics, unprecedented for a Haredi politician. He was better than anyone at taking care of his friends - and he had many. He created an independent welfare system within Shas, providing food, education and other assistance to poor Sephardim in periphery towns, ultra-Orthodox as well as secular and even Arab-Israelis. Funding for these services came from the state, secured in exchange for his support of the peace process.
It was realpolitik at its finest and Dery knew exactly what his was doing: Shas increased its seats in the Knesset and his personal popularity rivaled that of Rabbi Ovadia, a phenomenon not lost on the old man.

A steep fall

The castle soon began to crumble when Gilat started investigating Dery's finances after receiving leads about widespread corruption in the interior office. "How many apartments does Dery have, and how did he fund his newest one?" read one of Gilat's notes. Dery was quickly investigated and chose to remain silent. In 1993, the Supreme Court ordered him to resign from government until the investigation concluded; nevertheless, he remained head of Shas until 1999.

In 2000, after years of litigation, he was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of bribery, fraud, and violation of trust, including a $150,000 bribe from a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

His trial was highly controversial, and his conviction and sentencing even more so. Both nearly tore the country apart. Dery and his followers vehemently defended his innocence, claiming the trial was staged by the old Ashkenazi elite to dethrone Dery and punish the Sephardi community.

During the trial, Dery got into even more trouble as a key figure in the Bar-On Hebron scandal in which then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed an attorney general believed to be favorable to Dery's case in return for Shas support of redeployment in Hebron. The deal was soon revealed in the press and Attorney General Roni Bar-On served a single day before being forced to resign.

But Dery's conviction was the real zinger. Hundreds of thousands of Sephardim, both ultra-Orthodox and secular, protested on his behalf in front of the Supreme Court.

On the waves of controversy, singer Beni Elbaz managed to add his own phrase to the Israeli lexicon with the hit "Hu Zakai" (He is innocent). For a while, it seemed like the country was headed toward a civil war between Orthodox and secular over this man.

Dery's immense popularity only grew with his conviction: In 1999, he managed to bring Shas 17 seats in the Knesset, an unprecedented achievement that made Shas the third biggest party in the government. Ironically, only after he was dethroned could the kingmaker of Israeli politics get even closer to the crown.

But Dery, like Moses before him, could not enter the Promised Land himself. In 2000, he was sent to Maasiyahu Prison, where he served two years out of three year term, released for good behavior. He was replaced in Shas by Eli Yishai. Though at first considered a not-so-bright puppet for Dery, Yishai has managed to become a leader of his own, albeit with much less flare. Shas currently holds 11 seats and is the fourth largest party in the Knesset.

A triumphant return

But now Dery is returning to Shas and to the Knesset. He wanted to return much sooner but was banned from politics for seven years after his release in 2002.
When he came back, he found Shas a different party than the one he'd left. Ovadia Yosef and his supporters, it appears, didn't like Dery's immense popularity which, in many ways, eclipsed even that of the rabbi. It suddenly seemed that the old sage preferred Yishai, his adopted political son, to Dery. But after some wiggling – and a threat to start his own party – Dery was allowed back into the leadership in a power-sharing deal with Yishai, a deal sure to hit some roadblocks soon.

Over the years, Dey has changed his demeanor. Once the suave, clean-cut, designer suit-wearing darling of Israeli politics, Dery has ditched the cigars for a much more religious, wholesome demeanor. He swears prison has changed him. His beard is much longer, his clothes more modest. He appears a humbled man.

And that's exactly the way he wants to appear. But behind the hat, his eyes still sparkle with the hunger for power that propelled him forward all those years ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, he finds himself relevant again. With the social protest movement demanding a return to the welfare state and the race between the right-wing and left-wing seemingly tight, the dovish, socially-minded Dery is sure to find the key to forming the next government. This time, though, instead of being reviled by most secular Israelis, some actually express fondness for him and would even consider voting for him if he struck out on his own. Nobody has forgotten what he did, but that doesn't mean they disapprove of his return.

So one of the most corrupt politicians in Israeli history now finds himself poised for a triumphant return after just a short exile. This time around he is still accepted, if not loved, by all.

Why is Dery so popular nowadays with non-Orthodox? You could say that everyone loves a good redemption story, but the cynical people of Israel are not the kind to believe in stories of redemption. The more likely answer is that while Dery may have been bad, his heirs were much worse. He did not, in the minds of the secular public, try to make Israel a Haredi country, he was instrumental in promoting the peace process and he had a sense of style and dignity – two things notoriously missing today from Israeli politics.

Now the king is victoriously entering his old kingdom, welcomed by his people with open arms. Israel, it seems, needs Dery just as much as he needs Israel.