Deri 'still undecided' on run for Jerusalem mayor

Shas chairman expresses support for former party head, who served 2 years in jail for bribery.

aryeh deri looking jaunty 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
aryeh deri looking jaunty 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Charismatic haredi political figure Aryeh Deri, the one-time head of Shas, said Wednesday in response to a flurry of rumors that he was still undecided on whether or not to run for mayor of Jerusalem. Deri told Army Radio that the reports proffering him as a candidate were premature and that he still had not decided on the issue. Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced Wednesday that he would personally ask Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to support Deri should Deri choose to run. Yishai's spokesman said that the party was waiting to see whether Deri, who was convicted nine years ago of fraud and bribery, is legally allowed to run for office. Relations between Yishai and Deri have been rocky since Deri was forced to leave Shas in the wake of his indictment and subsequent conviction. Shas was purged of MKs and functionaries known to be loyal to Deri and were replaced with Yishai's supporters. Still, Shas sources insisted that Yishai would support Deri's candidacy and rejected claims that Deri's return to the political scene threatened to split Shas into competing camps. "Everyone is in Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's camp," said Roi Lachmanovitch, Yishai's spokesman. There has been speculation for some time that Deri is interested in running in Jerusalem's mayoral elections slated for November. However, until recently there were a number of factors working against the move. One of them was MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism), who appeared on his way to receiving across-the-board support from Jerusalem's substantial haredi community. According to a rotation agreement signed before the previous municipal elections between Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael, the nation's two Ashkenazi haredi political parties, current haredi mayor Uri Lupolianski, a Degel man, is to step down and is to be replaced by a candidate chosen by Agudat Yisrael. Agudah's Jerusalem branch chose Porush, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Jerusalem-based Agudat Yisrael politicians. Although the Sephardi haredi party Shas had no part in the rotation agreement and, therefore, was not obligated to refrain from running its own candidate, it made little sense for Deri or any other Sephardi haredi candidate to run against Porush, thus splitting the haredi vote and increasing the chances of victory for the leading secular candidate Nir Barkat. But with Porush lagging in the voter surveys, haredi activists became concerned that they would lose control over Jerusalem to a secular politician. Support for Porush began to wane, even within Agudat Yisrael, Porush's own party. Haredi media reported that Porush, in a push to gather support, was promising political favors to various Hassidic sects, including tracts of prime Jerusalem land. A Porush spokesman rejected these claims and said that the negotiations were for jobs in the municipality. UTJ chairman Ya'acov Litzman, a political adversary of Porush from the powerful Ger Hassidic sect, told The Jerusalem Post that his Hassidic sect's support for Porush was not unconditional and depended on the outcome of negotiations. Despite the difficulties, Porush is convinced that he can still win the race. A spokesman for Porush said the haredi community is gradually rallying around Porush and give him their full support. "Negotiations are moving along nicely. Tonight we are meeting with Ger, later this week we have a meeting with Degel and next week we are meeting again with Shas." But according to a well-informed haredi source connected with Degal Hatorah Porush is seen as lacking the popularity to win. "The built-in assumption in the rotation agreement signed between Degel Hatorah and Agudah is that the prospective candidate will have a chance of winning," said the source. "Now we risk the danger that Nir Barkat will be Jerusalem's next mayor. That would be a disaster not just for the haredi community but for the entire population of Jerusalem. But Porush refuses to listen." The source did not specify reasons for his opposition to Barkat. Meanwhile, Lupolianski has already declared that out of deference to the rotation agreement he will leave politics and return to Yad Sarah, the charity organization he founded. According to haredi sources, pressure was put on Deri, who already had a disposition for the endeavor, to run for mayor of Jerusalem. However, Deri's path to becoming the capital city's next mayor is blocked by a major legal obstacle. In 1999, Deri was convicted of fraud and bribery while serving as a public servant. The conviction abruptly ending 15 years of intensive political activity during which Deri, with the rabbinic backing of Yosef, built from scratch a political, social and religious movement that empowered a largely poor and uneducated Sephardi populace. By the time he was forced out of politics Shas had blossomed into a linchpin political party, the nation's third largest, and Deri had become the hero of hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Middle Eastern origin that credited Deri with redeeming them from Ashkenazi-dominated politics. Even the moral turpitude attributed to his conviction did not tarnish Deri's reputation in the eyes of his supporters. Rather, the entire conviction was perceived as a conspiracy by the Ashkenazi establishment to eliminate a powerful Sephardi politician. The conviction did not hurt Deri's popularity and Deri is seen as a more attractive haredi option for the mayoral candidate than Porush. Nevertheless, his stint in prison might prevent him from running in Jerusalem's elections. According to the law, a conviction that carries with it moral turpitude disqualifies the convict from being elected to a municipality position for seven years following the end of the sentence. Deri finished serving two years of a three-year sentence six years ago. Attorney Navot Tel-Tzur, who provided Deri with legal representation in the past, told the haredi radio station Radio Kol Chai that Deri had two possible options which might allow him to get around the legal obstacle. Tel-Tzur argued that the seven-year ban is the result of an amendment to the law that was instituted after Deri was sentenced. The five-year ban which was in place before the amendment was made is the one relevant for Deri. If the High Court could be convinced Deri might permitted to run. However, other legal experts argue that Tel-Tzur's argument is true only if the ban is seen as punishment. However, the ban could also be seen as the minimum transition period needed for a prospective public servant to regain his or her moral fitness. Another option is receiving a pardon from President Shimon Peres. Barkat, a successful hi-tech entrepreneur, said in response that "the elections are not just for the mayoralty, rather they will determine the future of Jerusalem. "The job cannot be done by the Lupolianski-Porush-Deri gang. Jerusalemites are looking for a real change and want to see a man with managerial experience and a vision at the helm of the most important city in the world."