The Next Shas Martyr

With the comptroller's report on the Carmel fire about to be released, Interior Minister Eli Yishai may be gearing up to become the latest Shas 'victim.'

As Shas gets ready to welcome back a former minister jailed for corruption, party chairman Eli Yishai looks like he may be gearing up to become its next martyr.

In a recent issue of the Shas journal Yom L'yom, Yishai wrote about the upcoming release of former minister Shlomo Benizri, whose is due to be freed in April.

Ovadia Yosef, Eli Yishai and Shlomo Amar.
Michal Fattal

"Rabbi Shlomo Benizri contributed much to the public, and dedicated his soul to the people, and yet he found himself behind bars," wrote Yishai. "His release in another few months sends a heartening message to all of us, and particularly to his family members. The entire public awaits the return of Rabbi Shlomo Benizri."

The statements come amid reports that a soon-to-be-released state comptroller's report will call for Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to lose their jobs as a result of their roles in setting the stage for the December 2010 Carmel Forest fire, which claimed more than 40 lives and is considered the worst forest fire in Israel's history. As interior minister, Yishai was responsible for the national firefighting services before the fire.

While State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss appears poised to fasten a noose around Yishai's neck, the Shas leader is focusing on his core supporters. He is showing loyalty to members of his Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party and, despite his previous pledge to wipe out corruption in Shas, has been expressing solidarity with Benizri, giving his family moral support, and suggesting that the former minister was martyred by the justice system.

When the comptroller's report on the Carmel fire is released next week, Yishai could well become the state's next Shas "victim." The report is expected to be harsh, and the ultra-Orthodox - Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi - are likely to close ranks and unite behind Yishai. Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is expected to lead the protests against the report, and Yishai's party rivals are unlikely to challenge the prevailing view in the Haredi community that the Shas leader has been unfairly singled out for criticism. In Haredi media, including Ashkenazi outlets, Yishai is already being depicted as a victim.

Once the report is released, the perception of Yishai as a martyr will be bolstered, and his political position could actually improve among the Shas faithful - in the short term. But it's not clear what will happen in the long term. If the comptroller's report dovetails with Shas voters' doubts about Yishai's performance as party chairman, his political career could grind to a halt.

Evading the noose

Yishai appears to be operating on the assumption that if he tries hard enough, he will be able to evade the hangman's noose. At a recent dedication ceremony for a new firefighting station in Emek Ha'elah, Yishai told participants that "everything you see here results from my efforts," adding that "it is to be regretted that decisions are reached after traumas." His participation in the event was part of a 13-month campaign to clear his name, a campaign Yishai began soon after the fire.

Past experience suggests that Yosef will step up his support of Yishai while outsiders push for his dismissal. Should the comptroller call for Yishai to be pushed out of the Interior Ministry, he will probably refuse to go. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to push the issue, since ousting the Shas chairman could trigger early elections before he is ready for them.

Roi Lachmanovich, who served as Yishai's media consultant until recently and is currently working for Steinitz, says it's too early to eulogize Yishai's political life. (In an effort to boost his image among religious voters, Yishai has since engaged the services of political consultant Ronen Tzur. )

"Anyone who believes that he can accurately estimate the influence on Yishai's political status that has been exerted by the Carmel tragedy, the foreign worker controversies and other issues that placed Shas in the public spotlight probably cannot fathom the internal dynamics among the Shas faithful," Lachmanovich said.

Some of Yishai's aides are feeling so complacent about the report that they are tossing around the idea of using it as a rallying cry for Shas voters, just as former party chairman Aryeh Deri campaigned on his claim of innocence after he was indicted on corruption charges.

But other Shas insiders say a campaign like that would be a terrible mistake, since there are too many circumstances Yishai can't control, including the date of the next election and Yosef's health. They say that if Yishai is to retain the support of the Shas kingmakers, he has to placate Yosef's sons, defuse tensions with Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias and cope with the threat of a potential Deri comeback.

Yishai's status in the party seems stable for now, but some party activists question whether even the wholehearted endorsement of Ovadia Yosef and his wife Yehudit can really guarantee his future as party leader. And even the Yosefs' "1 million percent support," as one source put it, could diminish if public opinion polls indicate that Yishai's continued service would seriously damage Shas in the next election.

And then there's the non-Shas world to worry about. Some Shas insiders argue that it won't matter how much the ultra-Orthodox continue to support Yishai if the Israeli public at large wants to see him go.