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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In an attempt to improve its image, Shas demoted Shlomo Benizri, slated for indictment for bribery and breach of trust, from the No. 2 position to the sixth slot.
Though there were previous indications that Yair Peretz, who pleaded guilty of using a fictitious college degree to boost his salary, would be ousted from the 17th Knesset list, the haredi Sephardi party decided against doing so. Nevertheless, Peretz was demoted to the 14th slot. With polls forecasting between 9 and 11 mandates for Shas, he is not expected to be elected.
During a press conference at Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's residence in Har Nof, Raphael Pinhasi, Council of Sages secretary, read Shas's list of MKs for the 17th Knesset. The list was chosen by the council, headed by Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai fielded questions from reporters who gathered in Ovadia's library, which was packed with well-worn books on Jewish law.
Yishai said the demotion was Benizri's idea. The intention was to lower Benizri's profile. "Shlomo Benizri wants to foster a positive feeling, help Shas embark on a new road," said Yishai. "The move was done with mutual understanding."
Yishai also notified reporters that in the next elections any indicted MK would immediately be disqualified until he proves his innocence. Pinhasi told reporters that any serving MK that is convicted of a crime would be forced to resign.
"We want to be stricter than any other party regarding this issue, stricter than what the law requires," Yishai said.
Still, Yishai defended Benziri. Referring to state witness Moshe Sela, whose testimony is probably the single most incriminating evidence against Benizri, Yishai said, "He is a witness that cannot be trusted. Benizri is innocent until proven guilty."
Several Shas MKs have had run-ins with the law in the past, most notably Aryeh Deri, who was convicted and imprisoned for corruption offenses. The decision to demote Yishai and Peretz and crack down on indicted and convicted MKs was a conscious effort to improve Shas's tarnished image.
Yishai also announced that Professor Johanan Stessman, former director-general of the National Insurance Institute, who turned down an offer by Shas to run on the party's list for the 17th Knesset, will receive a senior professional position, such as director-general of a ministry or a ministership. "Stessman will be our choice for Health Minister if it becomes relevant," said Yishai.
Stessman, head of the geriatric ward at Hadassah-University Medical Center at Mount Scopus, told The Jerusalem Post he did not want to give up his medical profession for politics, though he said he was flattered by the offer.
The doctor, who wears a black crocheted kippa, would have been the first Ashkenazi Shas MK. He was instrumental in the drafting of Shas's "Socioeconomic Road Map" aimed at reducing economic inequality and unemployment, strengthening public health services, reversing cuts in child allowances and housing aid, and introducing legislation that would create a mandatory "basket of social services."
The Road Map also supports raising the minimum wage to NIS 4,500 from its current level of about NIS 3,200, and eliminating Value Added Tax in food staples.
Besides the demotion of Benizri and Peretz and Nissim Dahan's decision to resign from the Knesset and return to learning Torah, the other major change in the Shas lineup was the addition of Ariel Atias, CEO of Badatz Beit Yosef, who was ranked number five. Badatz Beit Yosef is Shas's Kashrut supervision apparatus.
Atias's success in expanding operations to include more factories and food labels, coupled with his close relationship with Yosef in connection with Kashrut issues, made him a natural choice for advancement in the Shas ranks, sources said.
Commenting on Shas's diplomatic platform, Yishai said, "We cannot allow Hamas to set the agenda. Just as Rabbi Ovadia said, as soon as there is disengagement, the Hamas gains power. It was a prize to Hamas."
"If the Palestinians want peace, we are ready for peace," he added. "But there is no reason for us to run [away through disengagement]."
But most of Yishai's messages were related to socioeconomic issues. "Before there can be peace with our neighbors, there must be peace among us," he said. "There are too many people who suffer from malnutrition, hungry children with bloated stomachs and teeth falling out. It is an injustice that must be righted, a humiliation we have to erase. We have to bring back respect for the family for Jewish culture, we have to spark a revolution."
"God willing, we will be the second-largest party in the Knesset," he added.