Back in the Saddle

Arye Deri’s return to the Interior Ministry baffles jurists, feeds a victimhood culture and cements Benjamin Netanyahu’s political design.

Arye Deri
“I LOOKED around the cabinet table and realized I am the most veteran member,” said an amused Arye Deri, the controversial leader of Shas, as he once again became a minister in May 2015, 22 eventful years after being compelled to resign in the wake of his indictment for taking a bribe.
The indictment, which later matured into a conviction and 22 months in jail, would likely have axed any other public career.
Not Deri’s.
Israel’s political Houdini could hardly conceal his glee when he recalled after being sworn in last year that back in 1988, when first-time MK Benjamin Netanyahu was deputy foreign minister, he, Deri, though only 29, was already interior minister.
Now, thanks to the same wisdom, shrewdness, and luck that originally made him a potent power broker, rabble rouser and cultural icon, Deri is back at the helm of the agency where he staged his breakneck race to stardom while committing the crimes that derailed his meteoric career.
In a spectacular political comeback decried by jurists, papered over by politicians, but saluted by a sizable electorate – Deri is once again the Minister of the Interior and a dominant fixture on the political scene.
Deri’s improbable return followed last year’s election, when he emerged as the restored leader of non-Ashkenazi ultra- Orthodoxy after the death of its revered sage, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in 2013. Deri’s criminal record did not bother his core electorate, which gave him a handsome 5.5 percent of the vote, as opposed to his archrival and predecessor as party leader Eli Yishai’s Yachad party with 2.9 percent, which left it below the electoral threshold and, therefore, out of the Knesset.
Deri, by contrast, emerged from that duel not only re-empowered, but also, for the first time in his career, beholden to no colleague or superior. Now, equipped with seven Knesset seats, the political community waited to see what, if anything, was left of Deri’s fabled political skills. Less than a year on, it is already clear that, at 57, Deri is no less cunning than he was at 27, when he became director-general of the Interior Ministry.
While cobbling together his coalition last year, Netanyahu avoided planting Deri in the Interior Ministry, since both men feared a public outcry and appeals to the unpredictable High Court of Justice. Deri, therefore, had to make do with the Economy Ministry and membership in the powerful Security Cabinet to which he is automatically admitted as a faction leader.
Though delighted at his return to the heart of the power structure, Deri was not happy with the portfolio he was handed.
Regulating the economy is not his thing, nor is oversight of capital aid to investors.
Deri wanted a position where he would face not regulators and captains of industry but his target constituency, which he defines as all the have-nots ‒ whether observant, secular, Arab or Jew.
Deri, therefore, made a move no one understood.
Tasked in his new ministry with concluding the contentious gas-mining regulation process, the man who earned a reputation for multitasking and getting things done stepped aside and let the process stall.
Irking Netanyahu, for whom getting the gas pumped was a major goal, Deri behaved as if he was from the United Nations, hiding behind a formalistic excuse that he did not want to sign on the plan in place of the regulator, who had resigned over his adamant objections to what he saw as the proposed gas-mining deal’s concessions to big business.
Deri never made public his own view of the plan. Some think his heart was with the social protesters, who wanted a more egalitarian arrangement, whereby less gas would be exported, less of its returns would stay with big business, and households’ electricity bills would be more sharply cut. Others think he wanted to test his power, and there were those who believed that he just enjoyed making the prime minister sweat.
What is clear is that Deri saw the Economy Ministry as a way station to greener pastures, and what is even clearer is that the enigmatic stance he took on the gas issue soon proved its worth in promoting his personal ambitions.
With Deri refusing to sign on the blueprint, Netanyahu’s only solution to the standoff created by the Shas leader was to give him what he wanted from the moment he returned to the cabinet table ‒ a better seat. If Deri were given a different ministry, Netanyahu could install someone else in the Economy Ministry and get the gas scheme approved and launched.
Netanyahu, therefore, let Deri forfeit the economy portfolio, so the prime minister, as the new holder of the portfolio, could sign the plan. Deri, at the same time, would take from Netanyahu the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry ‒ a marginal agency for most politicians, but for Deri a strategic asset because it deals with the geographic periphery where he is out to mine votes.
Thus, barely two months after returning to a ministerial position, the restored Deri had cleanly completed his first ministerial maneuver. And after ploy came chance.
Deri would have happily remained in the agency he renamed the Periphery Ministry, but hardly 10 weeks into his arrival there, Netanyahu’s deputy, Silvan Shalom, resigned abruptly following sexual harassment allegations, thus vacating the Interior Ministry.
IT WAS a fortuitous circumstance much like the one back in 1988 that opened the door to Deri’s elevation to the office of interior minister. He was director-general of the ministry when his boss, Yitzhak Peretz, resigned in protest at a court ruling over non-Orthodox conversions.
Now, with the same office again unmanned, Deri’s rehabilitation project could leap to an entirely different plateau – emotionally, politically and socially. If restored to the Interior Ministry, he would come full circle since his eviction in disgrace from the position he so much loved and craved; he would oversee all local governments and, most importantly, he would set out to rekindle the revolution that others think died with Yosef.
Deri shrewdly read the situation and reached two conclusions, one public and the other political. First, his return to the government had been publicly countenanced, as was his subsequent repositioning within it. Moving on now to the Interior Ministry could therefore be accepted in a way not possible last year, when he first returned as a minister; and second, he knew Netanyahu was loath to give the Interior Ministry to any of his own party’s candidates, a move that would potentially make someone a little too powerful and leave others dangerously disgruntled. Appointing Deri would prevent the entire Likud headache.
This calculation proved accurate. Now the only obstacle left between Deri and his destination is the judiciary.
As of this writing, an appeal to the High Court of Justice against the appointment, sponsored by the Movement for Government Quality, is still pending. Moreover, State Attorney Shai Nitzan reportedly said in internal discussions that Deri’s return to the Interior Ministry, as opposed to his appointment as Economy Minister, is legally indefensible.
Yet, Nitzan was overruled by his boss, outgoing Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, who cited the High Court’s ruling last year that Deri’s return to the government, in any capacity, was ultimately a public rather than legal question.
The coalition’s five partners answered that “public question” by unanimously approving Deri’s appointment.
The Knesset was obviously less pliant, as 43 lawmakers voted against the appointment, with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid reminding the plenary that his faction presented a bill that would ban anyone convicted with moral turpitude from ever serving as a minister, lawmaker or mayor. The current law allows such a return to office seven years after a convict’s release from prison.
“The only reason this appointment is legal is that the lawmakers never imagined anything like the situation we now face,” said the former finance minister. Still, the original appointment went through, and is now fact.
So firm and irreversible does Deri’s return seem to the politicians that Labor, while voting against it, has otherwise avoided attacking it, evidently thinking of a day when it will need Deri as a coalition partner. Even more tellingly, the Joint List’s Arab lawmakers, taking in account the Interior Ministry’s potential benefits for the 77 local councils representing 1.75 million Israeli Arabs, broke ranks with the opposition and abstained in the vote.
Where, then does this apparently enduring revival go next? The Shas revolution fused religious insult with social injury. Speaking for the large Middle Eastern immigrations of the 1950s, the party that first entered the Knesset in 1984 voiced widespread, and mostly justified, wrath toward an Ashkenazi elite that domineered the newcomers socially, marginalized them geographically, humiliated them culturally and delegitimized their heritage.
The revolution Yosef sparked, by creating a mass movement that wielded political power and created a vast education system, found its emblem in Deri who, unlike Yosef, was a product of the great immigrations, whereas Yosef reached British Palestine as a child.
Having arrived in 1968 from Meknes, Morocco, to the slums of Bat Yam, the 9-year-old Deri was sent by his mother to a boarding school to keep him away from their neighborhood’s rough streets. Deri then experienced firsthand the Middle Eastern immigration’s hardships, moving from school to school before finding solace in the elite yeshiva of Porat Yosef where he was discovered and nurtured by Yosef’s circle.
As interior minister under prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, Deri constructed a system of patronage that upheld a vast political apparatus.
Centered around an educational network inspired by the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy’s formula of building religious ghettoes with the state’s help, the constituency Shas courted was driven not by theology but by sociology.
Deri’s voters mostly hailed from the Middle Eastern immigrations and within them from the geographic, educational and economic periphery. Yet, this effort sought not to equip its beneficiaries with tools for success in the existing social order, but to line it with communities that place observance above success.
TO THIS day, Deri and Shas have not won the backing of even one of the Middle Eastern immigration’s many self-made economic success stories from energy tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva and supermarket kingpin Rami Levi to insurance magnate Shlomo Eliyahu, entertainment mogul Haim Saban or banker Tzadik Bino.
Inspired by Yosef’s scholarship and charisma, Shas preferred to instill in a marginalized population a sense of pride in its heritage, a demand for state-funded economic improvement and a quest for social respect.
At the same time, Deri nurtured an alliance with the Labor party. Harnessing Yosef’s backing of the principle of land for peace, this alliance climaxed in 1990 when Shas joined Shimon Peres’s attempt to unseat Shamir, and it crumbled in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.
Though Deri brought Shas into Rabin’s government and also allowed – by abstention – the approval of the Oslo Accords, the alliance fell apart when Deri was indicted, and so did the party’s dovishness as terrorism began to accelerate.
That is how Shas, in Yosef’s last years, ended up politically in the bosom of the right, while socially no longer dedicated to change but to the preservation of the educational and political empire it had built.
It is within this social-political-religious maze that Deri’s strategizing now resumes.
Having restored his personal presence in the system, he is also seeking to restore Shas’s original position as a pivot between left and right – not in his former guise of peace crusader, but metamorphosed into a social crusader, reinforced by the victim’s image he has been working hard to nurture.
His positioning between Netanyahu and Labor on the gas issue was part of this aim.
It is unclear how much Deri – the man and the message – can still electrify and how much of the social fuel on which Shas originally ran remains in the tank. Last year, Deri defeated his rival Yishai, but the former Shas head’s threat remains potent, as does the decidedly hawkish and sometimes messianic electorate he attracted, for whom Deri remains nationalistically suspect and morally dubious.
On the other hand, Deri can rely on Netanyahu’s warm embrace. As the prime minister sees the political lineup, it should be dominated by a strong Likud surrounded by weak, conservative satellites that collectively comprise what he calls “our natural allies.”
Within such a structure, Shas in its current shape is ideal ‒ big enough to offer critical mass, but small enough to mind its own business ‒ provided, that is, Deri feels firmly back in the saddle.