In Blow to Rivals, Ovadia Yosef Names Aryeh Deri Sole Chairman of Shas

Deri, who served 22 months in jail for accepting bribes, was one of ultra-Orthodox party's joint leaders in January election; former Interior Minister Eli Yishai demoted to chairman of party's education network.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Thursday appointed Knesset member Aryeh Deri chairman of the Shas party.

Also Thursday, Yosef made MK Ariel Atias, who has headed Shas along with Deri and Eli Yishai since October, chairman of the party's 11-member Knesset faction, replacing MK Avraham Michaeli. Yishai, who led Shas on his own for 12 years prior to October, will be the chairman of the party's education network.

The appointments are expected to be formalized by Shas' Council of Torah Sages in the next few days, and possibly as early as Thursday evening.

Deri returned to Shas in October 2012, having been forced in August 1999 to resign from the Knesset and his position as party chairman following his conviction for receiving a bribe, fraud and breach of trust – charges for which he served 22 months in prison. His return created tensions between senior party leaders regarding their roles, and it was decided that Shas would remain without a chairman until after the national election, which took place in January.

While Shas managed to keep its internal conflicts under wraps before and during the election, they leaked in April. The day before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed the current government – leaving Shas in the opposition for the first time in a decade – Yishai asserted that he had succeeded in getting Shas into the coalition in place of Finance Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. Deri and Atias subsequently joined forces against him.

Yosef's decision brings to an end the "Shas triumvirate" – the failed leadership model that was established as a Mapai-style compromise when Deri returned to the party in October. Within the Sephardic party the prevailing view is that the awkward relationship between the three led to the party's mediocre election results – 11 seats – and also paved the way for the party into opposition.

Now the excuses have run out, and a semi Mapai-style compromise has been formulated: Deri will be appointed chairman, and the other two won't be left out either – Atias will be chairman of the faction, and Yishai chairman of party's education system.

Over the last few days, Deri and his supporters ramped up the pressure on Yosef and his son Moshe and daughter-in-law Yehudit, to come to a decision. Deri had several one-on-one meetings with the party's spiritual leader and at the same time rabbis, mayors and major players in the party complained about the stagnation at the top, and demanded a decision.

While Yishai wasn't in any hurry, Deri had another consideration to take into account – during May the deadline for candidates to out themselves forward for the position of Jerusalem mayor expires. This was Deri's back-up plan if he was not to be appointed chairman.

The relationship between Deri and Yishai has deteriorated to such an extent that they barely talk these days and even occasionally sabotaged each other's efforts. This was also the case during the coalition negotiations, and, as it became clear in the past few days, in the talks with Habayit Hayehudi regarding the appointment of chief rabbis.

Shas coleaders Aryeh Deri (left) with Eli Yishai after the exit poll results were announced on Tuesday night.Credit: Emil Salman

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