Former Shas Chief Aryeh Deri Inches Closer to Entering Election Campaign

Former Shas wonder boy and ex-con expected to unveil new party next week, after the Knesset officially moves up Israel's elections to September 4.

Aryeh Deri is edging toward announcing his entry into the election campaign as head of a new party. On Thursday, he rented a building in Petah Tikva meant to be used as election headquarters, and paid a visit to Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, head of Degel Hatorah's council of rabbis.

Deri is expected to unveil his party at a press conference next week, after the Knesset officially brings forward the elections to September 4. Deri, one of the most powerful politicians in Israel until he was convicted of accepting bribes and sent to prison more than a decade ago, is expected to present himself as the representative of Israel's poor and the national mediator between religious and secular.

Aryeh Deri at his father's shiva last week.

Keen not to anger his former patron, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Deri will explain that his goal is not to lure voters from Shas, but to appeal to voters who wouldn't consider supporting the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party.

A recent Dahaf poll predicted that Deri's new party would receive only three Knesset seats, but if he rejoined Shas and replaced current leader and bitter rival Eli Yishai, Shas would win 11 seats, only one seat more than it has today. Deri's supporters are more optimistic, pointing at their polls which predict the new party winning seven seats.

Without an active party behind him, Deri isn't ready for elections yet, and some pundits believe his party is merely a way to pressure Shas to call him back home. Some of his supporters insist he will run separately, but create a bloc with Shas in the new Knesset.

Others insist he is intent on the independent route, and even the possible publication of an old video of Yosef reproaching him - a threat raised by Yishai's supporters - won't make him change his decision. Yishai and Deri have each threatened to do their worst to each other.

But can Deri resist a hearfelt plea from "Rav Ovadia" to return to Shas? One of Deri's advisors told Haaretz that a coercive embrace from Yosef scares Deri more than all of Yishai's threats. Deri is well aware that under such circumstances, he would find it hard to justify going on his own, and that even his most ardent supporters in Shas would prefer a "happy ending."