The phrase “Deri is back” has become something of a political joke. But on Thursday, after 13 years in the political wilderness – which included time in jail and then an uncomfortable stint in recent months as part of the Shas party’s leadership troika – it became clear that Aryeh Deri’s comeback is no joke. He is now firmly and solely in control of the Knesset’s fifth-largest party, the second-largest in the opposition. That’s far from his former pinnacle of glory, but it’s still a key position. Yet Deri himself has changed.
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On Thursday, after months of hesitation, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef abolished the three-headed leadership he installed as a compromise in October. Granted, each member of the troika will still be a chairman: Ariel Atias will be chairman of Shas’ Knesset faction; Eli Yishai, the former party chairman, will be chairman of the Shas school system. But Deri alone is the new party chairman.
Over the last few days, Deri and his supporters have upped their pressure on Yosef to finally make a decision. For Deri, it was crucial to get an answer soon, because if he couldn’t return to the party chairmanship, his backup plan was to run for mayor of Jerusalem this fall. He therefore met privately with Yosef several times, while rabbis, mayors and key activists in the party made it clear that they wanted to see a change. Yishai’s star, meanwhile, had waned due to various political maneuvers.
Deri often told associates that the days of the troika were the worst days of his life. Many Shas activists believe the three-headed leadership was responsible for both the party’s mediocre showing in the election – it won 11 seats – and its relegation to the opposition.
Nevertheless, in one sense, Deri still isn’t back. During his glory days, he had an almost mystical hold not only over his Sephardi electorate, but also over fellow politicians and even the secular Ashkenazi media. Now, after his mediocre performance as head of Shas’ election campaign and the party’s failure to make it into the coalition, his luster has dimmed. He is battered, wiser and, just maybe, more modest.
In 1999, when he was ousted from the party leadership after being convicted on corruption charges, his replacement, Yishai, was seen as a mere placeholder until his return. But Yosef, then 79, became enamored of Yishai.
Today, however, Yosef is almost 93, and ailing. As a result, his son Moshe has become the party’s strongman and Moshe concluded that he had to prepare Shas to survive his father’s passing. He consulted with Atias, his confidant, and they decided that in a post-Yosef world, Deri would preserve Shas better than Yishai would. Moshe Yosef therefore pressed his father to return the party leadership to Deri.
Now, Deri will have to justify this confidence. Will he be able to rekindle the enthusiasm of the Sephardi public? Will he be able to bring the party success in this autumn’s municipal elections, where Shas is running not only for seats on local councils, but also, in some cases, for the mayor’s office?
One of his first challenges will be preserving the party’s control over its last bastions of power – the chief rabbinate, the municipal rabbinates and the rabbinical courts. In this context, it should be noted that Deri’s newfound power reduces the likelihood of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar being reelected to another term this summer: Unlike Yishai, Deri has no particular interest in furthering Amar’s candidacy. Nevertheless, it also seems unlikely that he’ll be able to replace Amar with his brother, Rabbi Yehuda Deri, given that Moshe Yosef wants to see his own brother, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, get the job.
But above all, Deri will be judged by his ability to thwart the government’s agenda for the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population – namely, its plans to force Haredi schools to teach the core curriculum and get Haredi men to serve in the army and join the workforce.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Deri’s promotion isn’t good news; Deri will certainly be much less accommodating than Yishai. But on the other hand, Deri needs Netanyahu, who is more attentive to Haredi concerns than his coalition partners are.
Nevertheless, Deri has managed to keep an open line to the leaders of two of these coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. That’s more than can be said for some of his partners in the opposition: Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich is still boycotting him, preferring to deal with Yishai.
Yishai, for his part, has never been the loser his opponents in the party have painted him. He managed to preserve Shas’ strength (11 to 12 Knesset seats) in three elections; he managed to impose his authority over Shas’ Knesset faction despite the opposition of Deri’s loyalists; and in the previous government, Shas’ ministerial positions gave it control over a significant swath of the country. Yishai also helped Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to achieve unprecedented political power: Senior politicians from all parties routinely made pilgrimages to the rabbi’s house.
But today, neither Shas nor Yosef are what they once were, making the challenges Deri faces all the harder. And with the leaders of the Ashkenazi Haredi community waging bitter war against Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, it is likely to fall to Deri to try to forge a new Haredi path to deal with the looming changes – both those taking place within the Haredi community itself, and those being fomented by the new government.