What Will Former Shas Strongman Deri Do Upon His Return to Politics?

Where exactly will he go? Will he become a senior minister? The leader of a social movement? Maybe even prime minister?

Aryeh Deri. For years these words have been casting a spell on members of the political establishment. So they go berserk whenever they hear another group of words "He's coming back," which has long since replaced "He's innocent." Deri isn't returning to politics immediately; "Maybe after the holidays," he reassures everyone. But he's coming back, a decade after his conviction for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust, and being banned from running for public office.

Where exactly will he go? Will he become a senior minister? The leader of a social movement? Maybe even prime minister? One of his confidants recently said Deri knows exactly what he will do, but this close associate, like others, is keeping things vague with statements like "It will be a big surprise." But the most desirable option as far as Deri is concerned - the Shas leadership - is the one that seems least likely at the moment. That one is decided in the home of the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

To return, Deri has to use his imagination, especially when it comes to timing. Our sages said all people have their moment in the sun, but the past year was not the time for Deri. Shas chairman Eli Yishai's far-from-coincidental determination last October to move up the elections ensured that Deri would be kept out of the Knesset. The classification of moral turpitude that was attached to Deri's crimes had still not expired. So Deri had to rush to announce his candidacy for Jerusalem mayor.

At the time it seemed like an exciting and imaginative move, but the district court ruled that Deri could return to political activity only in July 2009 or September 2010, depending on where one calculates the start of the period of moral turpitude. But Deri figures he must act now lest he lose momentum and disappear from the public consciousness.

The hottest proposed scenarios are that he will start an extra-parliamentary movement or be appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to establish a group for social issues. Accepting a job from Netanyahu is likely to get Deri entangled in petitions to the High Court of Justice against the appointment (again, because of the moral turpitude). But both scenarios have disadvantages for Deri, because they don't guarantee political leadership.

His most burning desire is to retrieve what he calls the "deposit" he was forced to entrust to Yishai a decade ago - the Shas leadership. Fulfilling this dream requires Yosef's approval, and in recent weeks it appears Deri has been preparing the ground to ask the rabbi, directly or indirectly. But implementing this scenario is a hopeless proposition, Yosef's associates say. Deri, for his part, will only try another path if he gets a negative reply from the rabbi.

One of Yosef's disciples, who has known him for years, is betting that if Deri asks to return as Shas leader, "we can reasonably assume that he will get an evasive answer." The associate says the rabbi has been very pleased with the chairman over the past decade, and although Yosef has good relations with Deri at present, the rabbi's great suspicion toward him "will never permit him to restore him to the leadership of the movement."

The seeds of this suspicion were sowed in 1999 during the election campaign in which Shas reached the height of its power - 17 Knesset seats. Deri, who shortly before the campaign was convicted of the corruption charges, was at the center of the election efforts. Veteran Shasniks, confidants of both Yosef and Deri, recall embarrassing situations when the rabbi's entry to the halls was accompanied by singing and weak applause, whereas when Deri showed up "the foundations shook."

Yosef's associate says that during that period "the rabbi found himself being treated like a second fiddle, and that is a profound psychological barrier that will prevent him from bringing Deri back."