Would Shas survive if Aryeh Deri were indicted?

Even if Deri’s time as chairman of Shas finally ends in a second indictment, the movement is likely to live on and perhaps regain some of its former glory.

By
November 20, 2018 22:24
Aryeh Deri

Aryeh Deri at Shas event. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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The police recommendation to indict Shas chairman Arye Deri on various corruption charges represents the latest episode in the tragic fall from grace of a talented, dynamic and charismatic politician whose life’s work raising the dignity of his community could be overshadowed by his personal failings.

Shas has already survived the indictment and conviction of Deri once, after he was sentenced to three years’ incarceration on bribery charges in 2000; but the party is not the same as it was back then, neither is its public, nor is the political map.

Critically, Shas in 2018 is shorn of its only asset more valuable than Deri himself, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the revered and much loved leader of Sephardi Jewry, who died in 2013.

In the election following Yosef’s death, Shas plummeted from 11 Knesset seats to just seven, losing the large majority of its traditionally religious base, who no longer had a reason to vote for the haredi party and had new political icons to choose from instead.

Shas’s polling numbers have fallen even further since then, flirting dangerously with the electoral threshold on occasion with just four seats, but a solid municipal election campaign and significant successes in those elections have brought that figure back up to six.

What would happen if Deri were indicted and was forced to resign as a minister? It seems unlikely at this stage that he would be able to rally the masses of Sephardi voters, haredi and traditional, around him once again as he did when he first ran into legal trouble in the ’90s.

Deri’s image, already tainted, has suffered further since the new investigations into his financial affairs were announced. The party’s voters, especially the remaining traditionally religious supporters, will be less willing to come to his defense a second time.

And attempts to claim that he is being persecuted by the Ashkenazi political and societal elite for being a proud Sephardi leader will garner less sympathy than they did during his first legal tribulations.

An Ashkenazi prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was sent to prison, as was an Ashkenazi finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, while the current prime minister has also been the subject of police recommendations to indict him.

These days it is harder to claim that the scrutiny of public officials is conducted only against those of a Sephardi background.

At the same time, Sephardi politicians have risen through the ranks of many nonsectarian parties further, which undermines claims of discrimination against such leaders.

Avi Gabbay, of Moroccan heritage, heads that bastion of Ashkenazi privilege and elitism, the Labor Party, while Moshe Kahlon, born to Libyan parents, heads the largest coalition partner to the Likud, and Miri Regev, also of Moroccan heritage, is one of the most powerful and popular figures in the Likud Party, to name but a few.

Notably, Shas’s rabbis on its Council of Torah Sages have not rushed to Deri’s side and declared that he is innocent. President of the council and Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen issued a terse but supportive message on Tuesday night but did not declare Deri’s innocence and is thought to be waiting for further news before throwing his full weight behind Deri.

It seems unlikely that in the event of an indictment, Cohen, whose son has been agitating against Deri, would back the Shas leader, as Yosef did in the ’90s, or that Deri could indeed survive as Shas chairman.

Were he to go, there are few attractive candidates to replace him. Former Shas MK and minister Ariel Attias could well return to the party to save it, and although he is a talented and sharp politician, he lacks Deri’s charisma and charm.

Current Shas MK and former minister Ya’acov Margi was thought as possible leadership material, but like Attias has none of Deri’s star-like qualities.

And then there is always the specter of Eli Yishai, the man Deri elbowed aside when he returned to Shas and pushed out of the party’s chairmanship and eventually into the political wilderness. Yishai’s Yahad Party failed, albeit narrowly, to make it into the Knesset in 2015.

Yishai drastically lacks in magnetism and personality, unlike Deri, but he has built a functioning political party that gained a small number of seats in the recent municipal elections.

It is unlikely that Yishai would return to Shas and abolish his Yahad Party, but a system where the two parties run on a joint slate and Yishai’s spiritual mentor Rabbi Meir Mazuz is brought into a prominent role of rabbinic leadership might be feasible.

In any situation in which Deri is indicted and no longer leads Shas, the party will lose its remaining traditionally religious voters, which could amount to up to two of its current seven mandates.

It would become a rump party of solely Sephardi haredi voters who would likely continue to vote for it, regardless of the charisma, or lack thereof, of its new leadership.

This would leave it perilously close to the electoral threshold, and shorn of both Deri and Yosef the party could be in real trouble.

Ultimately, however, regardless of its electoral fortunes in the Knesset in the near future, Shas will survive without the leader who shone so brightly but who is in danger again of burning out and falling to earth.

Shas is a movement with established institutions, most notably the Maayan Hinuch Torani network of schools with some 51,500 pupils. It has local political branches the length and breadth of the country, and has the highest number of representatives in local municipal councils of any political party.

Even if Deri’s time as chairman of Shas finally ends in a second indictment, the movement is likely to live on and could eventually regain some of its former glory.

Avi Gabbay, of Moroccan heritage, heads that bastion of Ashkenazi privilege and elitism, the Labor Party, while Moshe Kahlon, born to Libyan parents, heads the largest coalition partner to the Likud, and Miri Regev, also of Moroccan heritage, is one of the most powerful and popular figures in the Likud Party, to name but a few.


Notably, Shas’s rabbis on its Council of Torah Sages have not rushed to Deri’s side and declared that he is innocent, with its president and Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen said to be waiting for further news before throwing his weight behind Deri.


It seems unlikely that in the event of an indictment, Cohen, whose son has been upsetting Deri, would back the Shas leader, as Yosef did in the ’90s, or that Deri could indeed survive as Shas chairman.


Were he to go, there are few attractive candidates to replace him. Former Shas MK and minister Ariel Attias could well return to the party to save it, and although he is a talented and sharp politician, he lacks Deri’s charisma and charm.


Current Shas MK and former minister Ya’acov Margi was thought as possible leadership material, but like Attias has none of Deri’s star-like qualities.


And then there is always the specter of Eli Yishai, the man Deri elbowed aside when he returned to Shas and pushed out of the party’s chairmanship and eventually into the political wilderness. Yishai’s Yahad Party failed, albeit narrowly, to make it into the Knesset in 2015.


Yishai drastically lacks in magnetism and personality, unlike Deri, but he has built a functioning political party that gained a small number of seats in the recent municipal elections.


It is unlikely that Yishai would return to Shas and abolish his Yahad Party, but a system where the two parties run on a joint slate and Yishai’s spiritual mentor Rabbi Meir Mazuz is brought into a prominent role of rabbinic leadership might be feasible.


In any situation in which Deri is indicted and no longer leads Shas, the party will lose its remaining traditionally religious voters, which could amount to up to two of its current seven mandates.


It would become a rump party of solely Sephardi haredi voters who would likely continue to vote for it, regardless of the charisma, or lack thereof, of its new leadership.


This would leave it perilously close to the electoral threshold, and shorn of both Deri and Yosef the party could be in real trouble.


Ultimately, however, regardless of its electoral fortunes in the Knesset in the near future, Shas will survive without the leader who shone so brightly but who is in danger again of burning out and falling to earth.


Shas is a movement with established institutions, most notably the Maayan Hinuch Torani network of schools with some 51,500 pupils. It has local political branches the length and breadth of the country, and has the highest number of representatives in local municipal councils than any other party.


Even if Deri’s time as chairman of Shas finally ends in a second indictment, the movement is likely to live on and perhaps regain some of its former glory.

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