What Will the Rabbi Do if an Angel Shows Up?

When Netanyahu met with Deri, the ex-Shas leader declared he will not be returning to politics - `for now.'

In the middle of last week, at the height of the crisis with the local authorities, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found the time to closet himself in his office for a nice long chat with a well-known figure from yesteryear: Aryeh Deri. Rabbi Aryeh Deri. A week earlier, Deri was among the invitees to the bar mitzvah party that Netanyahu held for his son Yair, in Tiberias. Prior to that event, the two hadn't seen each other in more than a year.

The meeting in Netanyahu's office was a t?te-?-t?te, on the night the Histadrut was about to declare the general strike. Netanyahu's office stated that the two men did not speak about politics. Which is - to put it mildly - highly unlikely. Deri says they spoke mainly about personal and family matters, although political affairs did occasionally creep into the conversation.

"Netanyahu explained to me just how much he believes in the need to hold a referendum on the disengagement," says Deri. "How much he believes it would be helpful to the state, prevent a rift among the people, reduce opposition among the settlers, and also strengthen Sharon and the coalition. He doesn't understand the opposition, the lack of confidence among Sharon and his aides."

And what does Deri think?

"Even during the days of Oslo, I tried to persuade Rabin (of blessed memory) to hold a referendum. In my opinion, this is such a major decision that only by a referendum will it be possible to surmount all the tensions and rifts."

Still, he does understand - to some extent - Sharon's stubborn objections to a referendum. "The other side (of the settlers - Y.V.) has an immense number of people mobilized. If Sharon doesn't receive extensive support from high-ranking Likud officials, he's liable to end up with nothing."

Deri feels that Sharon and Netanyahu share a common interest: neither wants elections now - each for his own reasons. But if Sharon suspects that Netanyahu is subversively acting to move up the elections, his suspicions are unfounded.

And what of Deri's plans? In the ultra-Orthodox media world, on what is called "the Shas street," they are talking about how Deri is on his way back into politics; either he will succeed his own successor, Eli Yishai, as party head, or he will set up a new movement. A traditional-Jewish social movement. Not ultra-Orthodox. In the past, Deri has said that there is room for such a framework. When asked if he intended to found a new political framework, he responded that he wouldn't do anything without the blessing of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Deri's friend and close ally, MK David Tal (One People), says that as far as he knows, "it is definitely something that Aryeh is thinking about, and as soon as elections are in the air, he will have to make a decision." Tal says he personally is skeptical, but that there are other people who think that Deri is serious. Tal feels that Deri does not see himself heading a party, but rather a movement. A spiritual leader, more or less. "This movement would have religious, secular and traditional Jews. No ultra-Orthodox. There would even be an IDF general. It would be a social party that would continue what Shas should have done but did not see through, and what One People should have done and - to my sorrow - did not see through." However, Tal puts the chances of this scenario unfolding at no more than 50 percent.

Deri gives it a chance of 0 percent. "Yes, I do see a need for a social party, but I have no intention of going back into political life in the future, at least for the next five years. Not in the next elections and almost certainly not in the elections after that, either." Deri says he devotes all of his time to his family, studies and business affairs, and that that is all he is interested in. Aides to party chairman Eli Yishai are following Deri's moves with interest that is mixed with worry. Deri has been getting very close, of late, to Rabbi Yosef. He is a regular Sabbath guest at the rabbi's table. Is the rabbi considering personnel changes at Shas? It would be hard to say what the rabbi is thinking, but on Yom Kippur Eve, Yishai intimates report, the Shas Knesset faction members met at the rabbi's home and heard him say the following: "Even if an angel came to replace Eli Yishai, I wouldn't replace him." If the rabbi said so, Yishai's aides remark, then he knows why.

Yahad is waiting for Barak?

The possible return of Ehud Barak as chairman of the Labor Party sparks mixed emotions in Meretz, AKA Yahad. Their brief political dalliance in 1999 and 2000 left Meretz bruised and bleeding. Its leaders were compelled to leave the Barak government in order to appease Shas. Two years later, in elections held at the height of the second intifada, which broke out at the end of the Barak administration, Meretz was hit hard, and was reduced to six Knesset seats.

There are those in Yahad who would now be willing to take Barak back, if only for their own partisan motives. Internal polls now making the rounds of the political establishment unequivocally show that when Barak heads the Labor Party, Yahad gains significant electoral strength. Alternately, when Labor is headed by Shimon Peres, Yahad loses Knesset seats. The problem, according to the surveys, is that - as of now - the overall strength of the left-wing camp when Barak heads Labor is slighter than when Peres heads Labor.

Yahad parliamentarians look back with longing to the 1992 election campaign, when Yitzhak Rabin headed Labor and Shulamit Aloni headed Meretz; Rabin brought votes from the right, Meretz from the left, and together the two parties drew 56 seats (44 for Labor, 12 for Meretz).

Yossi Beilin, Yahad's new leader, is quite familiar with these polls. He isn't willing to take any questions about Barak and Labor. It is not acceptable for the leader of the party to issue recommendations to the voters of another party, even a sister party, as to whom they should vote for. Moreover, Beilin has a personal problem: he is still a close friend of Peres'.

But the chairman of the Yahad Knesset faction, MK Zahava Gal-On, who is close to Beilin, says it explicitly: "We haven't forgotten his sins as prime minister," she says, "but the way it looks now, Barak is the only chance the Labor Party has to take votes from the right. As head of Labor, Barak could maximize the number of votes from the right going to Labor, enhance Yahad's capability, and clearly differentiate it from Labor, in so doing contributing to increasing the size of the entire camp."

Gal-On's party colleague, Yossi Sarid, says that even if it could be proved that Yahad would increase its strength with Barak as Labor head, he would wholeheartedly be willing to give up these added seats. "I rule it out completely. Seats in the Knesset aren't the be-all and end-all. Even if it is in Meretz's direct interests, Meretz's interests should also extend to the premiership and its quality, and I cannot in any way manage to long for the days of Barak.

Barak was not a good prime minister. He missed a lot of opportunities, and not only in the diplomatic sphere. I don't remember him as a particularly good prime minister in domestic affairs in general, and education in particular."

Barak and Beilin have a strong personal relationship. They frequently meet and talk. Beilin dedicated his book "Guide to a Wounded Dove" to Barak, "who dared to make peace." In their meetings, they are already perhaps planning the next electoral campaign. How good it will be to fight, to debate, to point out the differences between them, and their attitudes toward Geneva (which Barak opposes) and disengagement (which Beilin opposes), and then sit down again in the coalition negotiations.

Meanwhile, Beilin is immersed in the prosaic affairs of being chairman of a small party, and seems to have plunged into them to the point of having vanished. He devotes much time to solving the financial liabilities of Yahad. Beilin says that he has managed to strike out a monthly deficit of NIS 183,000 by cutting the payroll, dismissing party workers, transferring their duties to a crew of volunteers, and launching a fundraising appeal among party members. His attentions are devoted to the formation of various party committees, and disagreements with the man who would run against him as head of the party, MK Ran Cohen, in the weekly executive meetings. He frequently makes the rounds of branches of the movement around the country, especially in the Arab sector, where he sees serious potential to increase Yahad's strength in the elections (especially if Barak heads Labor). His critics charge that he is a one-issue man: diplomatic efforts. That in social affairs, or matters of ethical public behavior, his voice is not adequately heard. "We are splashing around in the shallow water," complains a high-ranking party official. "We're not managing to accomplish anything. We're not being counted. We're treated as being wholly predictable. Maybe there's a charisma problem here."

Geneva, his initiative, has reverted to being a boring city in a European country. Only in Europe is it still on anyone's agenda. Beilin was supposed to spend Yom Kippur in Tuscany, at a ceremony in which he and Yasser Abed Rabbo were to have received a prize for their joint initiative. He didn't bother going.