Shas Rabbis Consider Sacking MK Eli Yishai as Power Struggle Intensifies

Yishai’s efforts to form a rival party reportedly infuriated Shas officials.

Emil Salman

Rabbis affiliated with Shas are to decide Sunday whether to oust MK Eli Yishai from the party due to his preparations to form a rival party. Yishai is reportedly continuing to weigh his options, including retirement from political life or founding a new party, possibly with members of Habayit Hayehudi.

Sources close to Yishai told Haaretz on Saturday night that Yishai was still making major efforts to stay in Shas, but that Deri was rejecting Yishai’s overtures. “Eli does not care about his place on the slate, but rather freedom of action.” The sources said Deri wanted to keep Yishai quiet and said the latter would not remain in Shas if it meant “getting Deri’s permission every time he opens his mouth on political matters.” The sources said Yishai had wanted to retire from politics, but the rabbi “whom Yishai consults and obeys, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, did not allow him to do so under any circumstances.”

Sources close to Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri said he would fully comply with the decision of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen and Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani, a senior member of the Council of Torah Sages, who are due to discuss the issue today (Sunday). Ba’adani, considered closest to Yishai of any of the Shas leadership, has been holding talks with him on conditions for him to remain in the party, after Deri announced publicly that Yishai would be number 2 on his Knesset ticket and serve as a senior minister in the next government if Shas joins the coalition.

During the discussions, Yishai asked to have a say in the Knesset slate and in the Council of Torah Sages, while Deri requested that Yishai give him a letter or resignation ahead of time, which he would invoke if he felt Yishai was not submitting to his authority. Most of the demands presented were rejected.

On Friday Yishai met with the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, to ask for his blessing in establishing the new party. Shas officials were reportedly livid over the meeting, regarding it as interference in its internal affairs. In response, Shteinman’s associates issued a clarification that he had “not instructed Yishai in any way to split from Shas,” and said the subject of a split had “not come up in the conversation.”

Yishai is preparing for the establishment of a party that would appeal to a broad spectrum of ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox and traditional voters. However, it is believed that outgoing Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Habayit Hayehudi, who together with Yishai came up with the idea of the new party, will find himself in the end in partnership with Habayit Hayehudi chairman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, as in the previous campaign.

This possibility has led Yishai to consider retiring from politics altogether.

More and more people in Shas are calling for Yishai to be ejected from the party, among them, last week, the deputy mayor of the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, Tzuriel Krispel, and other local government officials and grass-roots activists. The Council of Torah Sages is aware of these views, however, it is still possible that the rabbis will allow Deri to hold a meeting with Yishai, planned for today (Sunday).

The Deri-Bennett axis

Meanwhile, Deri and Bennett spoke on Friday, and Bennett is negotiating with Ariel to revamp the joint Tkumah-Habayit Hayehudi slate. The surprising Bennett-Deri axis could weaken the Ariel-Yishai alliance. Bennett and Deri reportedly did not go deeply into the political issues, and it seems that the significance of the meeting was in the very fact that it was held, given the political pressures the two are under.