Former Jailbird Dery Is Netanyahu's Badge of Shame and the Only Dove in the Cabinet

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Shas leader Arye Dery in the Knesset, May 14, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The media narrative concerning Shas leader Arye Dery’s return to the cabinet – 22 years after an indictment previously forced him to quit – is that, for the first time, a person jailed for a criminal offense is now a serving Israeli minister.

Dery did little to suppress this, talking to Channel Two television on Sunday of his vindication and parading his elderly mother Esther, who needed to be taken to the new ministerial office to see how her beloved second son was finally back on Olympus.

There is no need to add anything here. The fact that a convicted bribe-taker who has never shown remorse and, to this day, denies his crime, can return to politics, lead a party and assume control of a major ministry is both a dismal illustration of the state of Israeli politics and a badge of shame for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government. However, as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein wrote last week, he would prefer not to defend Dery’s appointment in the High Court, but it is perfectly legal. Love or loathe the leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party and his record, that is now in the past, and the question of how he will act in his second career as a minister is intriguing.

Ostensibly, Dery has been weakened politically by the death of his party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the Shas split that pushed the party down to only seven seats – its lowest result in nearly two decades. But he is now the sole leader of the party, with no rivals or rabbis to overshadow him, and he is also in a unique position in the new government.

When the Supreme Court forced him to resign in 1993, Dery was the wunderkind of Israeli politics: the man who had been appointed interior minister before his 30th birthday, almost toppled Yitzhak Shamir’s government in alliance with Shimon Peres, and who became Yitzhak Rabin’s confidante. His ties with Netanyahu go back further than the other ministers’ – and unlike nearly every other Knesset veteran, they never fell out.

Today, he is probably the only minister, barring Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), who can get a meeting with the prime minister whenever he wants. In effect, Dery and Ya’alon are now the government’s responsible grown-ups, with one Dery ally calling him “the cabinet’s older brother.” And, unlike Ya’alon, Dery is also – amazing as it may sound – the government’s only “dove,” a man who sat in Rabin’s post-Oslo Accords government.

Ultimately, despite heading the second-smallest of the coalition’s five parties, Dery is the most influential of its members after the prime minister. How will he use that influence? Is he interested mainly in reestablishing his old status, or will he use his regained power to further a new agenda? As the economy minister in charge of employment, will he roll back the reforms of former Finance Minister Yair Lapid and ex-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and continue to underwrite ultra-Orthodox (also known as Haredi) young men sitting in yeshivas, or will he work to encourage them to join the labor force? And will he pander to his overwhelmingly right-wing voters or be the main moderating force in this nationalist government? In the absence of a foreign minister, diplomats and the Obama administration will be looking for a moderate interlocutor in the new government. Could it be Dery?

A point to prove

Shahar Ilan, Haaretz’s former correspondent for religious affairs and now the research director for Hiddush (an organization that promotes religious tolerance), has followed Dery since the beginning of his political career and is skeptical. “Dery has always been responsible on diplomatic and security issues,” he says. “But you have to remember it was Rabbi Ovadia [Yosef] who forced him to support the Oslo agreement. He will be anxious not to ruin Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, but he will pander to his right-wing voters. Anyway, he needs to first prove he can be an effective economy minister before he gets involved in diplomatic issues.”

Shas’ campaign communications director, Yitzhak Sudri, has worked with Dery and other Shas leaders for many years. He says Dery wants to prove to the Israeli public that it was wrong about him. “As I see it, Dery is now saying to the public, ‘You kicked me out, threw me in prison, buried me – now I’ll show that you can work with me.’ That’s why, the minute after he got into the Economy Ministry, he went to meet Netanyahu about the job losses crisis at Israel Chemicals in Dimona, and immediately after drove down to Dimona to meet people there. He needs to show he’s working for all Israelis now, not just the Haredi community.”

Shas insiders are already grumbling that Dery is not hiring party members for his new staff, but has instead brought in professionals and retained some of the current advisers. “You won’t have a minyan [prayer quorum] there for mincha [afternoon prayers],” observes one of them wryly. Dery’s defenders claim this is proof of his new approach. In many ways, Sudri says, Dery will keep the policies of the previous government. “The difference is that when Lapid and Bennett implemented policies to get the Haredim into the workplace, it looked like they were beating them with sticks. In Dery’s hands those policies will look like carrots, because he’s ‘one of us.’”

Historically, ultra-Orthodox politicians have refrained from significant involvement in diplomatic and security issues. Dery was the exception. His most notable intervention was during a 1991 cabinet meeting at the start of the Gulf War, following the launch of Iraqi Scud missiles at Israel. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef instructed him to travel, on Shabbat, to the meeting that took place at military headquarters in Tel Aviv. There, Dery successfully advocated against an Israeli retaliation that could have split the international coalition fighting Saddam Hussein.

Yehuda Avidan, Dery’s old friend and political adviser, says he will fill a similar role in this coalition. “Over the last two years in the Knesset, Arye was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as its subcommittee on the secret services. He has accumulated a huge knowledge on diplomatic and security issues, and in the new government he will push to rehabilitate relations with the Obama administration. I can’t say whether he will be sent on diplomatic missions, but since, with such a small majority, no one in the government will be travelling abroad much, there will be those who know where to find him. He’ll certainly be the main moderate voice in the kitchen [inner security] cabinet, and Bibi listens to him.”

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