Arye Deri is back – but which one?

Deri is fascinating because as a political figure, he’s been so hard to pin down. When he returns, will he head Shas or form his own party, and will that choice finally demonstrate his true direction?

Arye Deri_521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Arye Deri_521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Former Shas party leader Arye Deri spent the prime of his political career under indictment for bribery. He’s been out of the Knesset since 1999, he did two years in prison, and since his release nine years ago he’s been at a loose end – leading pilgrimages to the graves of tzaddikim, advising businesses how to attract the haredi consumer. On paper, he’s a hasbeen, a nostalgia item from the 1990s.
Yet after telling thousands of bigwigs at last week’s President’s Conference that he intends to lead a political party in the next elections – which he’d said before, just not in such a high-profile setting – the country’s leading pollster, Mina Tzemach, found that masses of Israeli voters want him back. If elections were held today, a new party led by Deri would get nine Knesset seats, while a Deri-led Shas would get 14 (compared to 10 under Eli Yishai, who replaced him as party leader and interior minister).
“He’s popular not only with haredim, but with traditional Jews, with soldiers, with soccer stars,” says Hanan Kristal, one of the country’s leading political analysts.
What is it about Deri? What explains the intensity of his presence in the political arena – beginning in the late 1980s, increasing steadily over the next decade, and still burning today, when he’s an ex-con out of politics for the last dozen years? (Everybody wants to interview him and he’s turning everyone down, which, of course, makes him that much hotter.) To begin with, there’s his sheer, natural charisma.
Appearing on a TV screen, he’s extremely hard not to like. He has kind, intelligent eyes, a warm voice, an embarrassed laugh, a fervent, sincere manner. Unless you absolutely despise him for being corrupt, or a Shasnik, or “one of them,” he brings out the father or mother in you. (Somehow, after all the political history he made and the long layoff that followed, he’s only 52 years old.) Furthermore, he’s respected as a highly capable individual – a political genius, in fact.
“He has a sharp mind, and there aren’t that many sharp minds among the 120 people in the Knesset.
It’s good that he’s back in politics,” says a lottery shop owner outside Jerusalem’s bustling Mahaneh Yehuda market. One of Shas’s founders in the early ’80s, Deri became interior minister at 29 – the youngest cabinet minister in the country’s history – then led Shas to a startling 17 Knesset seats in the 1999 election. (The party’s campaign focused entirely on Deri’s court conviction, which came two months before election day.) To his overwhelmingly Mizrahi supporters, he’s a modern-day Dreyfus – an innocent man persecuted because of his ethnicity, an upstart outsider punished by the traditional (in this case, liberal secular Ashkenazi) elite.
“Arye Deri’s all right. Corrupt? He went to jail for nothing,” says a grocer at Mahaneh Yehuda.
But beyond his personal charm, talent and martyr status, Deri remains so endlessly fascinating because as a political figure, he’s a split personality. What he stands for, the direction he’s headed in, always was and still is an unsettled controversy. Among the political leaders of the last generation, Deri remains the great enigma.
“Today I’m returning to politics,” he told the President’s Conference, “to unite the people in advance of the difficult decisions ahead of us.”
At the start of his career, Deri was widely seen as a uniquely unifying figure – a Sephardi haredi who was altogether worldly, who had moderate political views, who forged alliances with the secular Right and Left – somebody who could ease the tensions between the haredim and the mainstream, between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. One little-known fact about Deri is that as interior minister he made a lot of friends among Arab mayors and council members who appreciated what he did for them; for this reason, more than a few Israeli Arabs voted Shas.
Yet he ended up being one of the most divisive figures in Israeli political history. After Yediot Aharonot published an exposé of his corruption at the start of the 1990s, it was seconded by a State Comptroller’s Report, then by police investigators, until he was indicted in 1993 for taking roughly $155,000 in bribes as interior minister.
By this time, Deri and his true believers were on the warpath against the “elites” – the media, law enforcement, the Supreme Court, the entire so-called leftwing, secular Ashkenazi establishment that supposedly wanted to keep the Sephardim and religious at bay. Other politicians under criminal investigation took up the same theme – notably Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman – but Deri’s was the longest campaign, the most fervent, and it alone brought huge crowds out into the streets to protest his innocence. At the rallies, Sephardi soul singer Benny Elbaz would serenade Deri with the song “He’s Innocent.”
ON THE other side of the fence, secular liberal Ashkenazim viewed Deri as the symbol of corruption, of illegitimate haredi power, of an assault on democracy and the rule of law by self-styled “outsiders,” and an assault on them personally. On election night May 17, 1999, when Ehud Barak won the prime minister’s race and Shas won 17 Knesset seats, Barak appeared before a massive Kikar Rabin crowd, which roared out its coalition guidelines: “Rak lo Shas! Anybody but Shas!”
It did no good, though; in those days, Shas was the indispensable coalition partner to prime ministers of the Right (Yitzhak Shamir and Netanyahu) and Left (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Barak).
Yet the same political cohorts who loathed what Deri stood for in 1990s today have their hopes riding on him, which Deri encouraged at the President’s Conference by speaking in the purest dovish tones.
“My worst nightmare is war,” he said. “I never voted in the cabinet for military actions, which is why I know I cannot become prime minister.”
The Tzemach poll found that if Deri were to run at the head of his own party, he would take voters mainly from Likud and Shas, thereby taking away the Right-religious majority in Knesset, and giving it to the Center-Left-Arab parties.
Furthermore, he said, the party he wants to lead in the elections would not be a “religious” or “sectoral” party like Shas.
“What was good for 1984 [Shas’s debut national election] isn’t relevant now. Then it was the right thing to run as a Sephardi party because we were discriminated against,” he said, adding that now he wanted to start a “unifying” party.
From the sound of it, Deri is switching sides. But then again, maybe not. He hasn’t ruled out running for the leadership of Shas, which, under Yishai’s leadership and the oversight of the 91-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s family and inner circle, is anything but a dovish, multicultural force. And last weekend, Deri reportedly went over to Yosef’s Jerusalem home and was received warmly.
Kristal says that even if Deri runs as the head of a dovish, religious-secular party, that doesn’t necessarily mean “he won’t throw his support to Bibi after the elections and give him a majority in the Knesset. If he once again can determine which bloc forms the government, he can demand a lot; he can take the Interior Ministry back from Eli Yishai. Or he could force a national unity government. Whichever way he goes, he becomes a player again. He can be the enabler or the spoiler. He always ends up playing the same game.”
TO YOUNG people today, it’s hard to convey the cultural and political sparks Deri gave off in his heyday. In 1996, when he was 37 years old, the Cameri Theater ran a play called Tikkun Hatzot, written by journalist/ TV host Amnon Levy, that was a thinly disguised story of Deri’s youthful revolt against his Ashkenazi rabbis – in essence, the story of the “Shas revolution.”
He seemed to be the power-broker at the center of every political earthquake – the “stinking maneuver” of 1990, when he played Peres off against Shamir in the struggle for the reins of the government, as usual ending up on the winner’s side (Shamir’s). Then, when Rabin was prime minister, Deri became one of his favorites. He was a close political ally of the thenrising power in Labor, Haim Ramon. In the salad days of the Oslo accord, he was tight with yet another young, talented, charismatic politician, Ahmed Tibi.
And when the Likud returned to power in 1996, Deri became indispensable to Netanyahu and his right-hand man Avigdor Lieberman. He was at the very core of the “Bar-On/Hebron Affair” in 1997, when strings were pulled in high places to appoint an attorney-general who would go easy on his case; Netanyahu, Lieberman and others were investigated, but only the Moroccan-born Deri was indicted.
“They all got off except the frenk,” said Yosef at the time, using an Ashkenazi slur for “Moroccan.”
He became the symbol of Sephardi underclass resentment against the Ashkenazi establishment going back to the founding of the state. His was the cause of a mass movement that accused the country’s power structure of being rigged against them.
“You spit on us and you want us to say it’s raining?” I was told by Moshe Abutbul, then Shas deputy mayor (and now mayor) of Beit Shemesh, at an outing of municipality employees on the eve of Deri’s entry to prison on September 10, 2000.
“He’s the Sephardi Nelson Mandela,” said Assaf Matari, then coordinator of Beit Shemesh’s religious schools. “Nelson Mandela went into prison and came out the president of South Africa. Arye Deri is going into prison and he’s going to come out the prime minister of Israel.”
Thousands of crying, angry supporters rallied outside Ramle’s Ma’asiyahu Prison when Deri was taken in; others blocked highways into the city. A tent yeshiva, Sha’agat Arye – literally, “the lion’s roar” – was set up outside the prison to keep vigil, drawing large crowds for months.
One of those making a solidarity visit was Amnon Dankner, then editor of Maariv and a leading left-wing writer who’d migrated toward the Center. Author of a controversial, late-1980s Haaretz op-ed that many Sephardim took as an insult, he turned into a strong advocate in Ma’ariv for Deri’s cause. Elbaz even wrote a song in his honor.
“After Deri’s conviction, I read the verdict and was amazed at how biased and full of holes it was. I became convinced that Deri was not guilty,” Danker tells me. “But moreover, I felt that even if he was guilty, he was singled out [among other allegedly corrupt politicians] and pursued, no question. The [justice system] couldn’t find anything to pin on him, so they kept looking and looking. I had the feeling that the Israeli establishment was afraid of Arye Deri and was ready to do everything to destroy him.”
Since then, the two have become friends, and Dankner says that while he would not vote for Deri if he reclaimed the leadership of Shas, he would if Deri started his own party.
“He wants to be a bridge between religious and secular, Left and Right, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, Jews and Arabs,” he notes.
“His views on foreign policy are very moderate. This is one of the Left’s problems, one of the reasons it’s become so marginalized – because it’s seen as against Jewish tradition, against nationalism, against religion. A figure like Deri, who represents the religious, traditional, nationalistic Israel, but who is also dovish politically, would be a huge asset in public life. He would press for a national unity government, which I think we need.”
EIGHTEEN DAYS after Deri went into Ma’asiyahu, Ariel Sharon paid a visit to the Temple Mount, and the Palestinian riots that broke out immediately turned into the second intifada. The end of Deri’s political career coincided with the end of the 1990s, the end of the peace process. It’s a new century now, and a new Israel. Is Arye Deri, even an updated, 2011 model, still relevant? Kristal says his appeal today is to Mizrahi voters who see him as one of their own, a Mizrahi who stayed true to his roots, but who also became part of the larger, more fluid world.
“He offers himself as a Mizrahi who’s openminded; a Mizrahi who’s accomplished things, who won 17 seats for his party, who cut deals with Ramon and Lieberman; a Mizrahi whom Rabin liked; a Mizrahi with friends in the media; a Mizrahi who doesn’t isolate himself from the world,” says Kristal.
At Mahaneh Yehuda, a wine seller who voted Meretz in the last election but who now finds the party too left-wing, says Deri’s return to politics is “a disgrace. A disgrace to Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, to the whole country. A corrupt, thieving politician gets out of jail and goes right back into the Knesset, into the government? A national disgrace.”
To my suggestion that Deri wasn’t necessarily more corrupt than many other politicians, only he’d served two years in prison for it, the wine seller shrugged.
“The others are just as big a disgrace,” he said, “but the politician under discussion now is Deri.”
No argument there.