Analysis: Let the battle begin - a quest for Rabbi Yosef's successor

Who will keep Shas united now that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is gone?

Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Three years ago, when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef turned 90, The Jerusalem Post printed a column on what would happen when he dies.
Shas officials interviewed for the column would only say that he would live until 120 like Moses. The comparison did not work, not only because the rabbi was destined to die earlier, but also because Moses made a point of appointing a successor in Joshua while Yosef has left behind utter chaos.
Only when the Shas officials made sure they were completely off record, and only after looking over their shoulder a couple times to make sure no one was listening, did they point to Rabbi Ovadia’s successor: Rabbi Ovadia – or rather the rabbi’s picture on the wall.
The Shas officials remarked that the Lubavitcher Rebbe also was replaced by a picture on the wall and that Chabad has expanded by leaps and bounds since the rebbe’s departure.
The officials said they expected the traditional Sephardi masses who voted for Shas because of their respect for Rabbi Ovadia to continue to do so after his death.
But that was three years ago, before Shas was scarred by battles between Arye Deri and Eli Yishai and attempts by Haim Amsalem and Amnon Yitzhak to form rival parties. Now that the only thing holding Shas together is buried in the ground, keeping the party united may be an impossible task.
Yishai could take revenge against Deri by persuading five MKs to break off from Shas with him. That would legally enable him to take Shas’s name away.
Such a scenario is unlikely to take place immediately but it could happen ahead of the next general election or perhaps earlier if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decides to withdraw from parts of Judea and Samaria.
Deri steered the party in a dovish direction the first time he led the party, after which Yishai pushed it rightward. Deri could decide to keep it right-wing in an effort to maintain its base, but that’s not what he has indicated he wants to do.
In an interview with the Post in January, Deri said Shas was not nationalist and that Yosef would back a longterm interim agreement with the Palestinians. As leader of the party, it is Deri’s right to decide what Yosef’s legacy is and implement it.
He could decide that a central part of the legacy is Yosef’s ruling that land could be relinquished for a lasting peace. Angry at Bayit Yehudi for conspiring to leave Shas out of the government, Deri could take revenge by instructing his MKs to support withdrawing from the land of Bennett’s constituency, the settlers.
Shas’s orientation on diplomatic talks might not be the only change.
Deri has made no secret that he did not want the party he heads to be a religious party anymore. He wants a party with religious and secular people together to focus on helping poor sectors and bridging the socioeconomic gaps in society.
Deri has come out in favor of electoral reforms that Yosef vetoed in the past. He could end up boosting such reforms indirectly.
If Deri fails to keep the support of the two-thirds of the party’s voters who are not ultra-Orthodox, the Likud will be strengthened and Israel could go back to having two main large parties.
But that will only happen if the hundreds of thousands of Yosef supporters who came to his funeral Monday turn their back on the picture on the wall.