(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Whether the present investigation will uncover wrongdoing or not, it was a bad idea appointing Arye Deri as interior minister.
This is not to say that Deri is without merit. Before he was imprisoned in 2000 for corruption, he built from scratch a political, social and religious movement that has transformed Israeli society and empowered Sephardi Jewry. Whether Shas’s brand of political activism has advanced Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries or their descendants is debatable, but Shas’s impact on Israel is undeniable.
Unfortunately, Deri did much to discredit his own movement, which called for social equality and an end to the hegemony of secular Ashkenazi Israelis. It emerged that as Deri built up Shas’s religious school system and social service network, he and his associates took advantage of Deri’s position as public servant.
Shortly after being released from prison in 2002, Deri began working for business magnates Yitzhak Tshuva and Lev Leviev and the Dankner family as an adviser.
He took advantage of his experience as interior minister to advance their businesses. Though by no means illegal, Deri’s work with these big business interests clashes with his present image as the protector of the poor and disadvantaged.
Deri’s return to politics in 2012 was not accepted unreservedly even within his own movement. Even those supporters of Shas who believe to this day that Deri was a victim of a crusade by the Ashkenazi elite to bring down a powerful Moroccan-born Jew understand that perceptions are important. Allowing a convicted criminal to return to the leadership of Shas distanced voters, whether they were the Orthodox religious core or the tens of thousands of traditional-minded constituents who transformed Shas from a niche religious party to a major political force.
However, Deri’s insistence on returning to the same ministerial position he held when he committed his crimes of graft in the 1990s was unadulterated chutzpah.
The Movement for Quality Government petitioned the High Court to disqualify Deri. We editorialized against permitting Deri to return to the Interior Ministry, on moral, not legal, grounds. In the end, the appointment was not blocked by the High Court. And the government did not heed our warnings.
Now Deri and his wife, Yaffa, are under investigation in connection with a corruption probe. Fourteen other people have been arrested. Large sums of money were allegedly transferred by Deri’s brother, attorney Shlomo “Momo” Deri, to Arye’s account to buy property.
The suspicion is that “Momo” served as a front man for businessmen who helped fund Deri’s political career.
Back in the spring of 2016, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit determined that the investigation would be defined as criminal in nature.
Police are also investigating large donations by leading business figures to a nonprofit created by Yaffa Deri. Mifalot Simcha, an educational network created by Yaffa in 1997, runs a high school for haredi girls, a teachers training school and an occupational training center. All the institutions are geared to aid needy families.
It could very well be that all the charges against the Deris will be dropped and no wrongdoing will be found.
The Deris, after all, are innocent until proven guilty.
Whether or not he is convicted, however, Deri should never have been allowed to return to the Interior Ministry.
We are a country that is fighting to convince the world that the Israeli economy upholds a business climate conducive to fair practices. Government corruption is destructive not just to the Israeli public’s trust but to international business perceptions. This government has an obligation to take every possible step to strengthen Israel’s image.
Deri’s past should not be held against him on a personal level. The idea that a person can change is central to Judaism and is embodied in the concept of tshuva, roughly translated as “contrition” but more accurately expressed as “return.” Deri might very well have returned to a state of honesty and uprightness that preceded his fall during the 1990s.
But politics is also about perception. Allowing Deri to serve in the same office that he exploited in the past creates a bad impression.