Former interior minister Aryeh Deri and Shas party strongman, left Ma'asiyahu prison early yesterday morning, after serving two-thirds of his three-year sentence on a range of corruption charges. Thousands followed him to prison two years ago but apart from a mob of reporters, only a handful of supporters, including three key Shas MKs, greeted him as he stepped over the threshold of the prison.
Deri was convicted of fraud, bribery, and violation of trust in public office, and his release unleashed speculation about his future plans, and the fate of the Sephardi-Haredi party that Deri led to a meteoric rise in electoral and political power in the 1980s and 1990s.
Deri, who once held a make-or-break kingpin position in a number of Israeli governments, was warmly greeted by a host of Shas lawmakers as he left the prison gates. His successor as Shas chairman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, was conspicuous by his absence. Analysts have long expected a battle for control of the party between rival camps loyal to Deri and Yishai.
"I spent two years here, and that is not a short time," a smiling but somewhat weary-looking Deri told reporters and well-wishers as he left the prison. "I learned a lot here, and I thank the Creator that I got out of here, thank the Lord, safe and sound and happy."
He flatly rejected reports that he planned to avenge slights by Yishai and other party rivals. "Last night before going to sleep, I said, meaning it absolutely, that I hereby pardon and forgive all those who sinned against me, and asked forgiveness for all those against whom I sinned, heaven forbid."
He said, however, that he planned to fight to clear his name, suggesting that he might ask for a re-trial or special appeal. "I have no interest in settling accounts with anyone, not in-house and not outside. I respect everyone. I only ask that they leave me in peace. I seek neither positions nor definitions nor headlines."
Alluding to media reports that quoted unnamed sources close to Deri saying he wanted revenge against Yishai, and had received only one short phone call from him, Deri said: "Don't believe any `close sources' who speak in my name." He said that he would devote himself "to help individuals and families," but would not enter into political or other affairs.
Yishai, referring in respectful if somewhat distant tones to "Rabbi Aryeh Deri", struck a similarly conciliatory tone. "We are all human beings. What motivates us is the greater good, the good of the movement. Our strength is that we know how to overcome all the feelings and do what is good for everyone."
Analysts have said Deri is likely to delay his return until a Yishai-led Shas, hamstrung by internal dissension and electoral handicaps, suffers an expected stinging defeat in the next general elections. Deri's formal prison term ends only in September, 2003, and he has been ordered to stay out of politics until then. By law he must wait at least seven years after that before he can return to the Knesset, and 10 years to accept a cabinet position.
But Yishai vowed "to do everything to return him (Deri) to political activity" and also to help Deri in a "public campaign for a re-trial. I will not only support a re-trial, I will be among those who will lead this."