Shas chairman Eli Yishai on Monday defended his decision to play the race card in a letter asking President Shimon Peres to pardon former minister Shlomo Benizri, which was first publicized on Channel 2 Sunday night.
The Supreme Court sentenced Benizri in June to four years in prison for accepting a bribe, fraud, breach of trust and obstruction of justice, increasing his jail sentence from 18 months. On Monday, the state opposed Benizri's request to delay the start of his sentence from September 1 to mid-October so he could spend the holidays with his family.
On a visit to the E-1 area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, Yishai defended his controversial letter, which made the lead headlines in the Hebrew press.
"Some see my appeal to the president as a crime, but I see it as willingness to help," Yishai told reporters at the site.
The headlines focused on Yishai's claims that Benizri had been discriminated against because of his Sephardi ethnicity.
"I don't want to go places better left unentered and remind you of the feelings of discrimination that [the Sephardim] feel, the feeling of being pursued and the still bleeding socioeconomic wounds," Yishai wrote in the letter.
Yishai's associates said he had felt it was important in this case to mention the racial connection, because his Sephardi constituents had been complaining that Benizri had received a tougher sentence than Ashkenazi public figures had for similar crimes. They noted that he had also used such a racial argument to defend the son of a prominent rabbi in Hadera in a recent incident.
But Yishai's political opponents charged that Yishai's decision to start "releasing the ethnic genie" after years of carefully avoiding doing so was connected to the return of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri.
Sources close to Deri recalled that he had staged an entire election campaign for Shas in 1999 based on blaming his jail sentence on ethnic discrimination.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was born in Iraq, criticized the Tunisian-born Yishai for using the racial element in defending the Moroccan-born Benizri.
However, Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev defended Yishai, saying that "there is a real feeling in the public that certain people are being pursued for doing no wrong and there has been a pattern when it comes to people connected to Shas."
Peres's office said he had not yet received an official request for a pardon.