The Roar of the Rabbi

The weekend election opinion polls contained a few surprises, but the oddest was undoubtedly the flight of voters from Likud to Shas because of the corruption scandals plaguing the ruling party.

The weekend election opinion polls contained a few surprises, but the oddest was undoubtedly the flight of voters from Likud to Shas because of the corruption scandals plaguing the ruling party.

It is odd, not only because of Shas's rich record in the field of corruption. This includes convictions, among others, of the party's former chairman, Aryeh Deri (bribery), the former chairman of its Knesset faction, Yair levy (theft and forgery) and of the former minister of communications and current secretary of Shas's Council of Torah Sages, Raphael Pinhasi (fraudulent declaration).

It's also odd because of the party's present record. The outgoing minister of labor and social affairs, Shlomo Benizri, who is also the head of the party's publicity team in the election campaign, is suspected of accepting bribes from the contractor Moshe Sela and from his wife, Edna Sela, in return for helping them import foreign workers.

The corruption allegations in the Likud have shunted aside the suspicions against the party's competitors. Whereas some people are not letting the public forget the suspicions raised against Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, the media have neglected the Benizri episode in the past few weeks.

If last Thursday's opinion poll for Ha'aretz by the Dialogue institute under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs - forecasting Shas getting 13 seats - is borne out, Ofer Hugi, MK will be re-elected to a second term in the Knesset. About a year ago, police recommended that Hugi be tried in connection with fraudulently allocation claimed for a suspected non-existent technical college. Benizri and Hugi are associated with Reuven Elbaz, the head of the Or Hahaim proselytizing institution for the newly religious, who is said to have brought more people "back to religion" than anyone in his generation. If Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas's spiritual mentor, truly wanted to give his party a clean new image, he would do well to reconsider the partnership with Elbaz.

One possible explanation for the flow of votes to Shas is that what has changed the voters' minds is not the corruption scandals but the shattering of the fond grandfatherly image that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had cultivated. Shas may not be a party above reproach, but the grandfather image of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is currently far more convincing than Sharon's.

Even within Shas there is surprise at the party's standing in the opinion polls. According to a senior figure in Shas's campaign headquarters, the party's campaign is largely dormant (like most of the other parties) despite the success of the rally at Yad Eliahu stadium in Tel Aviv that kicked off its election campaign.

In the past two election campaigns the party's activists went from door to door to solicit votes, but this time few are engaged in the campaigning, and even the mobilization of the ultra-Orthodox pirate radio stations is less intense than it was in 1999.

It's possible the polls are wrong and exaggerating Shas's strength, the senior figure surmised out loud. But he too knows that in the past the polls have actually underestimated the party's electoral strength. So what can the matter be? "We made a mistake when we estimated that the hard core of Rabbi Ovadia's supporters is worth four seats," he explains. "It turns out that it's worth eight to ten seats. Whoever decided to focus the entire campaign on the rabbi was right."

Yet here is a paradox - one of the reasons the party's chairman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai is hiding behind Rabbi Ovadia's broad back is the assumption that not only is he not adding any votes but is likely to lose them for the party. However, if Shas does score an impressive win, Yishai's status will be vastly enhanced among the party's activists and supporters, precisely because he made the right decision - to stay out of the spotlight.

One of the major reasons for the success of the rally at Yad Eliahu was undoubtedly the warnings issued by the party's leaders that a collapse in the elections would be a humiliating affront for Rabbi Yosef. Against this background, there are some in the party who are afraid that the favorable polls will generate a sense of complacency and ultimately hurt Shas.

In the final analysis, the senior figure in the party's campaign headquarters notes, a great deal depends on what happens on election day itself. Efficient work on January 28, which gets voters out of their houses and to the polling stations, can be worth up to two more seats.

There is nothing more striking than the cult of personality that Shas has fomented for Rabbi Yosef to make it clear why Aryeh Deri was effectively ousted and not brought back in from the political wilderness. There was never a Deri camp and a Yishai camp in Shas. In the 1996 elections, Rabbi Yosef watched sadly as masses of people voted for Shas because of the charms and amulets dispensed by followers of the aged kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaddouri, for whom Rabbi Yosef has only disdain.

In the 1999 elections, Deri himself nudged Rabbi Yosef out of the campaign and became the leader of the Shas masses. Deri paid dearly for that. In the meantime, the polls are also predicting a defeat - for Deri. Since Deri was released from prison, the prevailing view was that he was waiting for Shas to fall apart so that he could offer himself as the party's savior.

However, as things look now, three and a half years after the legendary leader was removed from party power, Shas is going to survive that and prove that even Deri is not indispensable. On the assumption that, as in the current campaign, he will not rebel against Rabbi Yosef in the future, either, Deri will have to look elsewhere than in politics for gainful employment as long as Rabbi Yosef is around. From now on, the Shas faithful will probably sing, "And if Yosef [rather than Aryeh, meaning "lion"] roars, who shall not be fearful?"