Deri’s return

According to the letter of the law, there is nothing wrong with reinstalling the charismatic ex-con, Arye Deri, at the helm of Shas.

Deri and Yishai at Knesset 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Deri and Yishai at Knesset 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
According to the letter of the law, there is nothing wrong with reinstalling the charismatic ex-con, Arye Deri, at the helm of Shas.
Besides, Shas appears to operate in its own unique ethical universe. Its mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, brushed aside all criticism by averring that “the party had merely returned to Deri a deposit that had been entrusted to it for safekeeping,” while he served time in prison and later waited out the mandatory cooling-off period before he could reenter the political fray.
In other words, the party leadership was Deri’s rightful property, one that he could reclaim when the time was ripe.
Therefore, no injustice was presumably wrought to Eli Yishai, although he ably led Shas in Deri’s absence.
Yishai had thereby accrued no rights. He was a dispensable caretaker.
All that may be convincing in Shas’s internal system of logic, but in the broader Israeli context the question remains whether what is not preventable by strict legalistic criteria is perforce acceptable by civic standards.
Deri was not prosecuted because of a forgivable slipup. In his case, a deeper moral lapse appears to have been involved. He added insult to injury by obstructing the course of justice and by fomenting demonstrations via divisive ethnic propaganda – likely to intimidate the authorities.
Therefore, it is only natural to wonder whether he is truly a reformed character, who no longer plays fast and loose with the truth.
Our doubts are accentuated by the fact that when Deri was released in 2002 – after serving two years for bribe-taking and breach of trust – the former minister and power broker announced melodramatically that he had lost all interest in the political machinations at which he was an accomplished past master.
Henceforth, he proclaimed, he would stoically and altruistically focus on his spiritual side. Any future celebrity status would be that of the agonized religious figure. Indeed, for a while, Deri’s outward demeanor was that of an introspective, sorrowful, almost contrite individual. But not for long.
Just one year later, in 2003, Deri, still sounding like a chastened man, announced that he might reenter politics after all, ostensibly at the insistence of adherents who insist that his absence creates a vacuum he must fill. Yet the crowds who saw him off to prison failed to clamor for his comeback.
Next, Deri tried to run for the Jerusalem mayoralty in 2008, claiming that the moral turpitude imposed on him as part of his conviction, and which prevented him from holding executive office, had expired six years after his release. The courts argued that the countdown begins after the date his full term would have ended – were it not for time off for good behavior.
Following that, Deri took yet another stab at politics, ripping off once and for all the mask of a sainted martyr and overnight ascetic. That was when he began his campaign to take over Shas.
All this reveals a man who, his meek pose notwithstanding, could not wait to reappear on center stage.
There is clearly a problem with Deri’s concept of veracity, not only with his past criminality.
It is here that the Israeli body politic owes a great debt of gratitude to the Yesh Atid-Bayit Yehudi parliamentary front for blocking Shas’s cooption into the coalition. Deri spared no effort to upgrade his comeback into a clout-laden ministerial appointment.
Thankfully, two new players – Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett – adroitly outmaneuvered Deri.
Had they not played hardball, Deri could well have had a crucial say once more about who formed the government and which policies it would pursue. True, Deri wasn’t the Lapid-Bennet duo’s direct target. His exclusion from the coalition constitutes a bonus, but that is nothing to scoff at. There is a gaping difference between dealing with Deri or Yishai.
Given Shas’s shenanigans, in the long run the body politic could greatly benefit from legislation to permanently preempt the return to the Knesset or ministerial office of any convict, especially one with a moral turpitude stigma.