'I Will Abide by Rabbis' Rulings'

Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri cannot run for mayor of Jerusalem this year, due to his conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, the Jerusalem District Court ruled yesterday.

Deri, who retired from politics after being convicted of taking bribes in 2000, had said last month that he would enter the race if there were no legal barrier to doing so. He was widely considered a serious threat to the other candidates' chances.

"I am very surprised by the decision," Deri responded yesterday. "A large public in Jerusalem that wanted to vote for me and thought I was the best candidate is being punished."

Deri said he will study the ruling with his lawyer and consult with his ultra-Orthodox party's rabbis before deciding on his next move. He is expected to meet today with Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, with whom he has already discussed the ruling by telephone, and then with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, one of the spiritual leaders of the United Torah Judaism party. Both rabbis had previously given him their blessing in the race.

Deri has said in the past that he would not petition the High Court of Justice against the decision. Yesterday, however, he said only that he would make a final decision soon on whether to appeal the district court's ruling.

"I understand there's a timetable," he said. "I don't want to keep anyone waiting. I will not stay in the race until the last moment."

The former Shas chairman refrained yesterday from saying whether he would support the candidacy of Meir Porush, who was the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community's chosen candidate before Deri announced his interest in entering the race. "I am a Haredi, who abides by the laws of the Torah," Deri said. "All my life, I was taught to listen to the Torah sages, and that is also how I educated an entire generation. I will listen to whatever the rabbis tell me regarding whether to support anyone, and whom."

Under current law, an offense involving moral turpitude bars a convict from running for public office for seven years after his release from jail. For Deri, this period would end only in 2009, while the elections will take place on November 11 this year.

But Deri argued that he should be allowed to enter the race, because at the time of his conviction, released convicts had to wait only six years before being allowed to run for office, and by that standard, he was eligible to run.

However, the court ruled that since the law's purpose was to ensure that only people whose "moral level was appropriate for such positions" would be candidates for public office, there was no justification for shortening the seven-year waiting period.