Shas MK and former party chairman Eli Yishai met with his rival and current Shas chairman MK Arye Deri for clear-theair talks following two years of hostility and intra-party quarreling.
In accordance with a decision by the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Deri replaced Yishai as party chairman after the 2013 elections, but Yishai has never reconciled to Deri’s leadership, and rumors abounded in the aftermath that he could split from the party.
Speaking to the haredi radio station Kol Barama on Wednesday morning, Yishai said that the meeting with Deri, which took place on Tuesday, had been positive and helped thaw the ice, while insisting that he had not demanded any conditions for staying in the party, as had been rumored earlier this week.
Yishai also said that he had not tried to split the party following Deri’s successful return to the party leadership.
“From the moment Arye was chosen, I did not try to undermine him or hamper him in any way, although this was done to me when I was chairman,” he said. “I never tried to split the party.”
However, when asked directly if he would be on the Shas electoral list for the next elections, Yishai was evasive, saying he would do “everything in his power” to preserve party unity.
He said he had initiated Monday’s meeting after Deri had called for internal party peace last week, and said that he felt he could help mold the party, which, he said, was not in good shape.
“Opinion polls show us losing seats in the Knesset, and we need to bring these voters home so that we’ll be able to enter the next coalition, especially the traditional voters, he said, in reference to the religiously traditional but not strictly observant Sephardi community.
“We need to rehabilitate the movement; it’s in a tough situation. The death of Maran [Yosef] left a massive void and you can feel the effects every moment and in every regard.
“I feel like I can serve as someone who will unite the ranks, and I have been silent until now in order to preserve the party’s unity and for the sake of Sephardi Judaism. We must be given a chance to try and make this work now,” said Yishai.
Deri returned to Shas in October 2012 after his conviction and incarceration in 1999 for accepting bribes and his subsequent enforced absence from politics.
He was first brought in as part of a triumvirate, joint leadership with Yishai and Ariel Atias, who was then serving as a Shas MK and minister but subsequently quit frontline politics.
After the 2013 elections, however, with the joint leadership failing to function, Yosef made the decision to appoint Deri as the lone chairman and political head of Shas.
The efforts to reach some form of rapprochement between the two sides come just a few weeks after Yishai’s rabbinic patron, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, was elected to serve as Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
Amar, who is close with Yishai, has also had a bitter dispute with Deri after the latter torpedoed legislation that would have enabled Amar to run for a second term as the national chief rabbi.
Rumors and speculation have abounded over the last year that Yishai could set up his own party or join another, with the approval and guidance of Amar in a move to draw Sephardi religious and traditional voters away from Shas.
As a public official, Amar can now no longer engage publicly in political activity, which may have prompted Yishai’s decision to reconcile with Deri, since Yishai can no longer expect the rabbi to endorse him politically if he moves away from Shas.
Last week, Deri said that he greatly appreciated Yishai and wanted him to remain in the party.
“Eli, we want to work together. You are our senior partner and, personally, I have a lot of faith in you and I want to continue to work with you. Please give us this chance, and you will see that, God willing, your respect and status as well as all other things we have will be given, so that we can stay together,” said Deri.
Later on Wednesday, Deri also spoke on Kol Barama and said that wanted Yishai in the party and to have the No. 2 spot on the Shas list.
“I unequivocally understand that Eli Yishai needs to be No. 2 in the movement. He is not an ordinary member of Knesset. He has a lot of qualities, and we have mutual respect for each other,” said Deri.