On Saturday, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef explained his dramatic decision to appoint MK Aryeh Deri to chair the ultra-Orthodox political party Shas over MK Eli Yishai. Prior to Yosef's decision, announced on Thursday, the two had shared the leadership along with MK Ariel Atias.
In a few short sentences, Yosef spoke about Deri's contributions to the growth of Shas.
"This week, the Council of Torah Sages approved the new head of the Shas party during a special meeting," said Yosef. "Rabbi Aryeh Deri was one of the founders of the movement. He was Interior Minister for 10 years, and he helped all the yeshivot without distinguishing between Sephardis and Ashkenazis. The great Rabbi Shach, may he rest in peace, said that a young Sephardi had managed to do what Agudath Yisrael couldn't achieve in 40 years. He took yeshivot that were thought to be on the verge of collapse and saved them."
Deri was forced to resign from the Knesset and his position as party chairman in August 1999, following his conviction for receiving a bribe, fraud and breach of trust – charges for which he served 22 months in prison.
Referring to Deri's prison time, Yosef said: "It was a deposit that he held. Before he entered prison I promised him: when you are released we will let you return. Now he can redeem it."
Yosef called MK Eli Yishai "an upright and honest manI am grateful to him. He did everything with wisdom and humility. He never bragged or was arrogant. I thank him for all he has done."
The decision to appoint Deri followed ramped up pressure on Yosef and his son Moshe and daughter-in-law Yehudit from Deri and his supporters. Rabbis, mayors and major players in the party also demanded an end to the stagnation at the top. Meanwhile, Deri had several one-on-one meetings with Yosef.
Adding urgency to the decision was the impending May deadline for candidates to announce their intent to run in the Jerusalem mayoral race. If not appointed Shas chairman, Deri planned to throw his hat in that race.
The relationship between Deri and Yishai had deteriorated to such an extent that they were barely talking as of late, and even occasionally undermining each other's actions. This was the case during the coalition negotiations and was evident in the past few days during talks with Habayit Hayehudi regarding the appointment of chief rabbis.