Aryeh Deri Faces Test of Leadership as Shas Loses Status, but Not Seats

The ultra-Orthodox party didn't suffer a Likud-esque meltdown, but its place in the new coalition is far from certain.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The sounds emerging Tuesday night from Shas’ headquarters in Jerusalem were mostly sighs of relief rather than shouts of joy. Although the election results being beamed into the events hall showed some sense of achievement for the party – 11 seats, the same as in 2009 - that achievement’s significance remains unclear.

Shas, which even by the lowest estimate has retained its strength, should be grateful for its good luck. It managed to ride out the numerous troubles that beset it in recent months, both internally and externally. These troubles threatened destruction.

They also threatened to make coleader Aryeh Deri the disappointment of the decade, after activists on the ground and journalists had waited for his return to the party. (Deri reassumed the leadership in October 2012, after spending some 13 years in the political wilderness following a bribe-taking conviction in 2000.)

However, these nightmare scenarios never came true. Shas was saved from collapse, but only after its toughest election campaign ever.

The first to be heard sighing with relief is, of course, Deri himself, on whose back the campaign took place. The seats he earned the party Tuesday are his gift to the continuation of Shas’ leadership. Deri, together with his supporters and rivals, saw the election campaign as a personal test for him, under conditions that grew more and more difficult as Election Day approached.

Deri did not achieve his spectacular accomplishment of 1999 - 17 seats. Nor did he keep the promise he made to activists just three months ago, to bring the party 15 seats this time. But he seems to have been saved from humiliation, even if the line between a medal and a demotion seems fairly fine.

While 11 seats preserve the party’s strength, the number means that Deri did not increase Shas’ parliamentary power. He cannot claim success - certainly not within the party - and it is likely his struggles with Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias over the party leadership will begin anew. Twelve or 13 seats would have been a different story.

To those on the outside, Shas officially ended Election Day with a declaration of victory, projecting the message that there is no way it will be left out of the coalition. Party spokesmen reported that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s spiritual leader – who was at the center of this campaign far more than at any time in the past – was content and had returned to his studies. Now he expects to receive reports about a telephone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or whoever else will be forming the next coalition.

But this election showed something deeper about the place of Shas and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Israeli politics and society. Parties from all over the spectrum – including Likud, supposedly its natural partner – saw Shas as a fitting target for attacks, and perhaps for humiliation too.

The hall where Shas’ victory celebration was held Tuesday was decorated with political posters bearing the slogan “I seek my brothers” (an allusion to the line in Genesis 37:16: "I seek my brethren").

In the latest election campaign, Shas showed that its brother is actually Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party. Also, a few of its siblings fled to three parties that appear not to have passed the electoral threshold: Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak’s Koah Lehashpia; Rabbi Chaim Amsellem’s Am Shalem; and Aryeh Eldad’s Otzma Leyisrael.

Shas coleaders Aryeh Deri (left) with Eli Yishai after the exit poll results were announced on Tuesday night.Credit: Emil Salman
A car promotes Aryeh Deri and Shas in the leadup up to the Israeli election. Which way now for Deri? Credit: Reuters

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