No Longer Alienated Youth

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein yesterday received a letter from Eli Yishai in which the Shas Knesset faction chairman politely asked him to reconsider his stand on freeing Aryeh Deri.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein yesterday received a letter from Eli Yishai in which the Shas Knesset faction chairman politely asked him to reconsider his stand on freeing Aryeh Deri. The prosecution has recommended to the Prison Service's release committee not to release Deri when he completes the first half of his prison term.

Yishai wrote of his apprehension about a possible emotional outpouring that might result from leaving Deri in prison. We may assume Yishai meant every word. Every day that Deri languishes in jail further enhances his status as a tortured martyr and increases the degree of terror imposed by his group of impassioned supporters on the media.

Yishai might very well be interested in Deri's early release, which would have the added advantage of being credited to him. Among Yishai's aides, no one seems to be afraid of Deri's charisma any more. It'll take him time, they say, to gather his forces. He can't come out against Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or forge bonds with secular forces. Netanyahu can get along just fine without him (especially with the help of Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman). And even if Shas can expect to lose half of its Knesset seats in the next election, Yishai will not need any help. He is not overly concerned about such a development and may even welcome it as a way to consolidate his own hold on power.

But within Shas, the Deri-Yishai face-off is hardly considered the crux of the matter. The elites, the politicians and most of all, the media - have always shown a profound sense of frustration in the face of Shas' uncanny ability to change the rules of the game to suit its needs. They all woke up too late to Shas, and scrambled to decipher and interpret it - when it distributed good-luck amulets, when it joined Meretz, when it set up its own education system, and when it won 6, 10, and then 17 seats.

These shocks and surprises compelled everyone to take a long hard look at Shas through a jittery magnifying glass. And now, it again eludes the naked eye - Shas' image as a revolutionary movement, along the lines Deri created and sustained, is apparently still valid, and public attention is still riveted on the moment Deri walks out of the prison gate. But this most unexpected party has by now pushed down roots so quietly and so deeply into the establishment that one may go so far as to say it is the establishment.

Eli Yishai inherited from Deri the ingenious structure of a popular movement in which the boundaries between it and its political-party structure are entirely fluid. No one would be able to tell what emanated from what, or when. Did the network in the field develop from above, or did the leadership evolve from the field?

But the Deri structure was too centralized. The neighborhood-based public offices, the Knesset members, the party movers and shakers - all of them were subject to his authority, referring to him all matters great and small. It is customary to think that Yishai replaced Deri's people with his own people, but he did much more than that - he tore down the old structure and moved it, piece by piece, to the government ministries controlled by Shas.

The Health Ministry is now governed by a hardworking minister who has earned the praise of health-care professionals and policymakers. The the ministry ombudsman's office, which is meant to serve the entire public, functions quite effectively.

In so doing, Yishai has brought about an absolute identification - albeit not always so readily apparent - between his party and the state and civil service. Its education system may have shrunk, but the niche allocated to it in the budget is gradually increasing. At this point, it would be very hard to ease Shas out of the state education budget. Yishai has forged a trusting relationship with social welfare and economic experts, who have remained at his side in the interior ministry.

Shas is no longer a gang of alienated youth. It is an establishment, a state party, that has skillfully built itself up in the important ministries that look after the day-to-day life and welfare of the citizens. There are still those in the Knesset who define Shas as a backward, anti-Zionist party - as if it and Satmar were cut from the same cloth - but Israeli society has for some time now identified them as new Mapainiks with tzitizit and kippot.

Now, while the left has fallen asleep at the wheel, and the right wheezes its war mantras, the ultra-Orthodox Shas - a Knesset faction that has not even one woman - has blossomed as the first civil party.