Arye Dery Tries to Eliminate Shas Rivals by Reconciling With Chief Rabbis

With recent polls showing Shas hovering around the threshold for getting into the Knesset, the charismatic ultra-Orthodox leader wants to get rid of internal opposition

Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri speaks during an annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, a Moroccan-born sage and Kabbalist, in Netivot, Israel, January 18, 2018
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

With recent polls showing Shas hovering around the threshold for getting into the Knesset, its chairman Arye Dery is trying to eliminate the party’s internal opposition. On Monday Dery led a conciliatory meeting with the Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, and with his predecessor, Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. In doing so Dery neutralized two pockets of resistance to his leadership. He is now officially holding talks with former Shas leader Eli Yishai and his patron, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, in an attempt to placate them as well.

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Yosef and Mazuz held their media-covered meeting with Dery in what was termed a “historic reconciliation.” The two rabbis ended, at least for now, a pointed feud that began during elections for chief rabbi five years ago. At that time, say Shas members, Amar made a deal with Rabbi David Stav, according to which he would field a candidate opposing Yosef, in a move that was considered a betrayal of his revered father, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Since then relations between the two have been strained, with Amar, who enjoys special standing in the Sephardic community, joining Dery’s opponents in Shas – Yishai and Mazuz.

Half a year ago Israel Television News (formerly Channel 2) aired a recording of Dery speaking out against Amar. “I’m no fool. I know how much Amar can add but I also know that I’ve taken control of Shas, since Amar wants to dominate it,” he is heard saying. “He’s bored all day, he wants to rule. He needs the power. He always needs to be in the headlines and be involved in everything.” About Amar’s associates, Dery said: “If you give them a finger they’ll grab your whole hand. They are much more sophisticated, they have no barriers or limits. He’ll lie through his teeth, he’s the champion, that’s his profession and he can twist everyone.” Dery later apologized for these words.

Now, with the reconciliation taking shape under a veil of secrecy, it seems an important part of the internal opposition to Dery is folding. A Shas source told Haaretz that “along with the meeting, which improved the atmosphere in the Sephardic public, Dery went up in public opinion next to Eli Yishai and Rabbi Mazuz, who are still isolated without Rabbi Amar’s support.”

Another Shas figure said that “over this last year Dery has knocked other pockets of support for Yishai, such as getting the sons of Rabbi Abergil from Netivot to drop their support, people with power at election time. When he negotiates with Rabbi Mazuz, Dery will be in a good position, and Rabbi Amar, who has a lot of influence on Rabbi Mazuz, will be with him.”

Amar already asked Mazuz to compromise, but the latter insisted that his people be guaranteed slots on the Shas Knesset list, and that they retain their autonomy so they can remain loyal to Mazuz rather than to Shas rabbis. Dery and the party oppose these demands.

An associate of Mazuz said some people who are close to Amar oppose the reconciliation, which may ultimately collapse. “They don’t trust Dery so there is no point in reconciliation,” he said. “Yishai is holding talks with other parties, too, and Rabbi Mazuz will not budge.”

So far Yishai is rebuffing offers by Dery, demanding that his people be guaranteed Knesset seats and maintain their autonomy as well.