Eli Yishai broke away Monday from the Shas party he led for more than a decade, announcing that he would head a new party in the upcoming election that he said he hoped would appeal not only to Shas voters but also to those outside the party’s traditional ultra-Orthodox Sephardi constituency.
The split with Shas and its current chairman, Aryeh Deri, was long expected. But it became official only at Monday's press conference at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem, where Yishai announced the establishment of Ha’am Itanu, a party whose name means “the nation is with us.”
“This isn’t an easy day for me. I’m leaving a party, but not its path,” Yishai said at the press conference.
“The nation is with us, because the nation wants unity, it wants to finally break down the barriers between religious and secular, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim,” he said. “With God’s help, we’ll be the surprise of the election and get more than 10 seats.”
Yishai, who has held several ministerial portfolios since 1996, also stressed socioeconomic issues.
“The nation wants social justice,” he said. “The nation wants concern for the poor, for the weaker elements of society and the periphery, for the development towns. And I’m acquainted with their distress from my own home — not from numbers or statistics. I was always committed, and felt an obligation, to take care of the weaker members of society. I did a great deal, and I’ll do even more in the future.”
He also said he hoped to appeal to people beyond the traditional Shas constituency, “to a larger and broader public that wants this new path.” Though Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, its constituents have also included many non-Orthodox Sephardim as well.
The press conference did not get off to a smooth start. Deri supporters were waiting for Yishai in the hotel lobby and greeted him with cries of “traitor”; they then tried to force their way into the room where the conference was being held. But guards hired especially for the event held them off.
After the press conference, as Yishai sought to leave the hotel by a side door, a scuffle broke out between his supporters and those of Deri, who unseated Yishai as chairman of the party last year, with the blessing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Policemen were summoned to the scene to help get Yishai out and stop the brawl.
Deri’s supporters then entered the conference room and tore down the signs, as well as the picture of Yosef, which Yishai had placed on the dais. “He’s Aryeh’s rabbi!” one shouted.
The incident was just one indication of the dispute between Yishai and Deri over who will continue the legacy of Yosef, Shas’ larger-than-life founder and spiritual leader, who died last year.
Yishai vowed to continue in Yosef’s path. “I was raised and educated at his knee, and I’m going with my truth, with the path that I’m certain of,” he said.
Yishai’s announcement Monday followed on the heels of a final, failed attempt to effect a reconciliation between him and Deri. That meeting took place in Bnei Brak at noon between Yishai’s rabbi, Meir Mazuz, and Rabbi Shimon Badani, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages.
Once the two rabbis realized that a reconciliation was impossible, they began discussing the terms of the divorce. Both sides were driven by a real fear that with Yishai starting his own party, the election campaign would become a battlefield between Shas and Ha’am Itanu, in which both sides would sling copious mud at each other.
In the end, however, they failed to reach an agreement under which the two parties would avoid attacking each other. So instead, they made do with issuing vague statements about the need for restraint.
For days, there have been rumors that Yishai might join forces with Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s Tekuma party should the latter decide not to run on a joint ticket with Habayit Hayehudi, as it did in the last election. But a spokesman for Yishai said he ultimately opted to form Ha’am Itanu without waiting for the two religious Zionists parties to decide whether to stay together or split up.
Yishai’s party already has a campaign headquarters, headed by strategic consultant Ronen Tzur and spokeswoman Shir Sagi.
With Yishai’s departure, Shas is losing an icon who has been with the party since its founding in 1984. That year, he began working as an aide to Nissim Zeev, then a Jerusalem city councilman and today a Shas Knesset member. Later, he served as an aide to Deri, then the party chairman, and in 1996, he was elected to the Knesset on Shas’ behalf and appointed to serve as social affairs minister.
Three years later, when Deri was convicted and jailed on corruption charges and consequently could no longer serve as party chairman, Yosef appointed Yishai to replace him. It was a stunning rise for someone who began his career as a welder in a garage, and it turned him into a symbol for Shas’ constituents.
Yishai, who grew up in Jerusalem in a family of eight children, was given the party chairmanship only as a loan until Deri’s return, but he ended up serving in the position longer than Deri did.
A political hawk, Yishai steered Shas sharply to the right of where it had been under Deri. He tried to recruit voters from the settlements, led the party out of Ehud Barak’s government in advance of the Camp David summit with Yasser Arafat in 2000 and generally opposed diplomatic agreements with the Palestinians.
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