Former Shas chairman MK Eli Yishai announced his departure on Monday from the party he served for 30 years, and declared that he is establishing a political faction, called Maran, to run in the upcoming elections.
At a press conference at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem and with an image of the revered former Shas spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at his side, Yishai, who predicted that his faction would secure 10 Knesset seats, declared that hundreds of thousands of people in the country would support his new party, whose name was oddly not announced.
“The people are with us, they want unity, they want to break down the walls between religious and nonreligious, between Sephardim and Ashkenazim,” said Yishai.
“The people want Torah, they want our traditions, Jewish values, decency and love of Israel. The nation wants true peace with our neighbors alongside love of the nation,” he continued, in a refrain designed to resonate with the national-religious community.
He insisted several times during his address that he is “leaving a party, but continuing the path of Maran [Yosef],” and took pains to point out that he is splitting from Shas to begin his own party with the blessing and support of Rabbi Meir Mazuz, a well-respected rabbinic figure in the Sephardi haredi world.
Securing the backing of Mazuz is an important step for Yishai in gaining legitimacy for his party and his decision to split from Shas in the eyes of the haredi community, although the weight of the four-member Council of Torah Sages – which includes one of Yosef’s sons – and the memory of Yosef himself, will be hard to overcome.
As the press conference was drawing to a close, several dozen Shas and Deri loyalists, mostly yeshiva students, laid siege to the conference room shouting “traitor” at Yishai, claiming that he was betraying Yosef and his wishes to preserve the unity of the Shas party.
Yishai was forced to cut short questions from the press, and his entourage extricated him from the room via a back door, as police personnel arrived at the scene to break up the disturbance.
In one especially poignant moment, a Deri loyalist grabbed hold of the picture of Yosef at the podium in a brief tussle with the Yishai activists at the event.
Deri’s office issued a response to Yishai’s announcement, saying that the Shas movement was saddened by Yishai’s decision to quit the party and “abandon the path and heritage of Rabbi Ovadia and against the [will] of the Council of Torah Sages.”
“It is sad that personal desire and alien motives brought Mr. Yishai to this action,” the response read, adding that Shas was united under Deri’s leadership and “under the flag of social responsibility and Jewish values that represents Shas, the movement of Maran.”
One figure to sign up to Yishai’s party is MK Yoni Chetboun, who until Monday had been a member of the Bayit Yehudi party but announced that he would be joining Yishai’s faction.
Chetboun had quarreled frequently with Bayit Yehudi leadership and party hierarchy, and was facing a difficult battle in the upcoming Bayit Yehudi primary elections to obtain an achievable slot on the party electoral list.
The MK echoed Yishai’s message that he hoped the new party would, for the first time, unite haredim with the national-religious and traditional communities under one political banner.
Yishai’s announcement closes a drawn-out saga of bitter animosity with current Shas chairman MK Arye Deri, which began in October 2012 when Deri returned to the front lines of the party after his enforced political exile following his conviction and imprisonment on bribery charges.
Yishai, Deri and former Shas MK and housing minister Ariel Atias led the party together into the 2013 elections, but Yosef ultimately appointed Deri as chairman, and Yishai was pushed aside.
He never reconciled himself to Deri’s leadership and agitated within the movement against him ever since.
In recent days and weeks, speculation mounted that Yishai would form his own political party to run in the coming election, although it was widely thought that he was trying to raise his bargaining power for the list of demands he made of the Shas leadership as his terms for staying.
In particular, Yishai wanted shared powers to nominate candidates to the party’s electoral list for the election and a say as to which political bloc the party would align itself with afterward.
Deri and Shas’s four-man Council of Torah Sages refused these demands and Deri demanded in return from Yishai that he deposit a letter of resignation to the keeping of the council which would use it if he were to act against the interests of the party.
Deri also reportedly demanded that Yishai not issue press releases or conduct interviews with the media without coordinating with the party leadership.
After these developments over the weekend, Yishai was left with virtually no way back to Shas, and his final split from the party was all but inevitable after the deterioration over the last few days.