Israeli Interior Minister's Statesmanlike Image Won't Withstand Another Round

This time, if the probe into alleged criminal behavior turns into an official investigation, Arye Dery will probably retire to his villa and write his memoirs.

Arye Dery.
Olivier Fitoussi

Arye Dery has recently become the “statesmanlike” voice of Israel’s government. Last Sunday, on the backdrop of the arrest of the soldier who shot the wounded terrorist in Hebron and the right wing’s lashing out, Dery was one of the few cabinet members to support the defense minister and chief of staff. Dery was the one who, as Economy Minister, satisfied all sides in the confrontation over the natural gas deal and this week, as the head of Shas, he encouraged Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to soften his “unstatesmanlike” comments regarding non-Jews living in Israel. A statesman serving as a bridge over the stormy waters of Israel’s polarized society is something Dery always wanted to be.

Statesmanship suits Dery, and also plays an additional role: It cleanses his tarnished image, acquired after his conviction for bribery in the 1990s. It also may enable Shas to return to the days in which the majority of its voters were not ultra-Orthodox. Even if opinion polls show the party still hovering around six-seven Knesset seats, apparently with mostly ultra-Orthodox voters, it seems that Dery has managed to maintain quiet within the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox camp as well as removing a patina of antagonism felt by the general public toward him. He may soon become a bridge.

The person who ran in the last elections on the slogan of “The revolution returns” remains statesmanlike and measured even now, following the announcement of a probe into his affairs by law enforcement agencies. Appearing before the media he attacked no one, neither the attorney general nor political rivals who may have tried to trip him up. He only asked politely, with a smile, to hurry up and finish the investigation, and committed to cooperating.

This is what Dery’s alternative image looks like. As a politician he always managed to float above the fray. Each time things got rough and clouds gathered over him, some force lifted him up. This is what happened when Dery (“He’s innocent” cried his supporters) garnered 17 Knesset seats in the 1999 elections after he was criminally convicted, and this is what happened in the 2015 elections after a video was released showing Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef expressing his reservations over Dery’s return as Shas leader. It seemed to awaken the sleepy Shas public to support him. It has always been so.

Assuming that Dery is facing an investigation and questioning under caution, will the veteran politician, who is the first to admit that he’s aged, rely on his charm as a martyr, or will he stick to statesmanlike behavior? Is a campaign proclaiming his innocence already spontaneously organized among those he called “the invisible ones” in order to present him as a victim of a selective law enforcement system?

Sources close to him insist that there is nothing behind this investigation, but admit that he’s not up to another round, not at his age. If the probe turns into a formal investigation it’s reasonable to assume that he won’t cling to his post up to the last moment and will resign, maybe to his villa in the north to write his memoirs.