In case it has escaped anyone's attention, the former mayor of Jerusalem is now serving - for the time being - as the nation's prime minister. That little fact has likely not gone unnoticed by the man once commonly cited by pundits as a possible contender to become Israel's first Orthodox leader: Aryeh Deri, who now has his aides out testing the waters for a possible political comeback by leaking word of his interest in joining the mayoral race for the capital, to be decided in November. That at this late stage Deri is apparently interested in throwing his fedora into the ring says something significant about the state of the campaign, the unquenched ambitions of the former Shas leader, and the high stakes involved in the battle for the capital's municipality. Six years after finishing his prison term for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust - and declaring that he was through with politics for "the foreseeable future" - the former political wunderkind of the Haredi world has apparently decided that that particular future is past, and that the Jerusalem race might be a suitable platform for him to launch a comeback. There's undeniably a certain logic in that proposition, despite Deri's legal travails and long absence from public life. For one, it would undoubtedly provide a smoother path back than any attempted return to his old position as Shas leader, which would necessitate a messy intra-party struggle against his successor Eli Yishai. It's hardly surprising then that on Wednesday, Yishai rushed to endorse a Deri run for Jerusalem, even before it had become fact. It's also unlikely that a shrewd political operator like Deri would contemplate taking on the challenge unless he had realistically calculated the chances for possible success. Despite legal complications stemming from his former convictions that he might still have to hurdle to qualify for office, the fact is that his prospects of obtaining the Jerusalem municipality are by no means far-fetched. True, recent surveys show that Jerusalem venture capitalist and secular political leader Nir Barkat not only leads his current rivals - haredi candidate Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism and mercurial Russian-Israeli businessman Arkadi Gaydamak - but polls well above the 40 percent of the electorate needed to avoid a run-off. But historically, such polls in Jerusalem political races have proven not especially reliable, often underestimating the ability of the haredi sector to get out its vote, and the more apathetic attitude found in the city's non-haredi electorate toward this contest. Even with his former disgrace, Deri can likely count on support from the traditional, working-class Sephardi-Israelis who make up Shas's core constituency, view the conviction of its former leader as yet another example of discrimination by the Ashkenazi elite, and comprise a sizable segment of Jerusalemites. While that is still nowhere near the number of votes needed to win the election, Deri could calculate that his entry into the contest might dilute the support of all three other contenders enough to at least propel him into a second round against Barkat. In those circumstances, not only might the haredi vote coalesce to some degree behind the Shas candidate, but Deri - who during his political years proved adept at building coalitions and partnerships across the religious-secular divide - would likely have a better chance of teasing away some of the non-haredi voters Barkat is aiming to sweep up in toto, certainly more so than the UTJ's colorless (other than haredi "black") Porush. The big problem with this scenario is that it comes a little late in the game. If Deri had moved earlier to re-establish himself in the public eye and reacquaint the electorate with the skills that once made him such a compelling and dominant figure on this nation's political scene, it might have given him the time needed to downsize the liabilities posed by corruption convictions. As it is, Deri would have precious little time to not only address those issues effectively, but to also establish credible positions on other key issues that would enable him to win the majority vote he needs. Barkat, for example, has taken pains in the past year to shift rightwards on the debate over the city's political future, in order to attract voters concerned over parts of Jerusalem being ceded to the Palestinians. Deri might still decide the gamble is worth it, and not only for Jerusalem City Hall as a prize in itself. Remarkably - or maybe not so, since he served as a senior government minister before the age of 30 - he is still only 49, with potentially decades of political activity still ahead of him. Although being jailed on corruption charges would have been a career-killer for almost every other Israeli politician, Deri has been beating the odds for so long, who's to say he definitely can't do so again? And for a man of unlimited ambition, the fact that serving as mayor of a large city has in recent years served as a springboard for the likes of Ehud Olmert and Amram Mitzna to advance on the national political stage must make it that much more of an alluring goal. The stakes of this particular Jerusalem race, though, are bigger than Aryeh Deri's personal dreams. The rise of Barkat in the polls during the past year, and the replacement of Mayor Uri Lupolianski by the UTJ's Porush as the consensus haredi candidate, have sharpened the ideological-religious debate over the social future of the capital: Whether it is destined to become a majority haredi city along the lines of Bnei Brak, or can remain a more cosmopolitan metropolis where a sizable non-haredi population can still feel comfortable enough to live in to call it their home. How Aryeh Deri's entry into this contest would affect this equation is uncertain - and how he would address this overriding issue would likely determine whether his candidacy can turn out to be more than a personal political sideshow to the debate over the social future of Jerusalem. Calev@jpost.com

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