By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Arieh Deri is something of a political genius. Born in Morocco in 1959 he came at an early age to Israel with his family. To save him from the squalor in which they were then forced to live, his parents sent him to a yeshiva where he shone. He soon joined the Orthodox Sephardi Shas party to become its leader. When it joined the coalition, he was appointed first as minister without portfolio and, at 29, minister of the interior.
In 2000 he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for embezzling $155.000 while in office. He was released 22 months later because of good behaviour. A few years ago he returned to politics and later to the leadership of Shas. In all likelihood Shas will be part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s next government. Its leader is tipped to become once again minister of the interior, the job he had when he embezzled the money.
While Deri was out of politics, Eli Yishai was appointed head of Shas by their equivalent of supreme leader, the late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. When Deri returned, Yishai was removed as leader. In retaliation, Yishai formed his own party, much to the right of Shas, but it didn’t make the cut and he’s no longer in the Knesset.
Not long before the elections, an Israeli television channel aired a tape showing Rabbi Yosef castigating Deri in very harsh terms. Please feel free to speculate about who may have released the tape. In a theatrical move, Deri resigned from everything but “bowing to popular demand” returned a day or so later.
The question is, of course, whether an ex-convict should be a government minister – and in charge of the same ministry in which he committed the crime. A lot of people object. However, according to the letter of the law, there’s no legal reason why he should be stopped. Apparently, there’s a “cooling off” period of seven years after having come out of jail and Deri has complied. But what about moral reasons?
Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be too anxious to stay in power to allow moral scruples to interfere with his plans. He believes that he needs Shas in his government and he can’t get it unless Deri becomes minister of the interior.
Netanyahu could form a government without Shas and the other ultra-Orthodox party, Yahadut Hatorah, by inviting Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid to join him. But Lapid is staunchly anti-Orthodox and Shas refuses to be part of the coalition with him.
Yesh Atid was part of Netanyahu’s outgoing government. The prime minister seems to think that it’ll be easier to live with the extreme Orthodox than with the representative of the Israeli bourgeoisie, so expediency will win the day.
Of course, the other potential coalition partners should refuse to sit with Deri: if not Naftali Bennett’s reactionary Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, then at least the new Kulanu party which appears decent and reasonable, at least before it has gained power. But perhaps they’re also tainted with the Netanyahu brush.
Though I had high hopes for a unity government with Herzog’s and Livni’s Zionist Union, I now realize why they’ve made it clear that they will have no part of it. Of course, if the Zionist Union joined, Netanyahu could form a government just with Yesh Atid and perhaps Kulanu, but that would probably not be right-wing – “national” – enough for him. The fact that it would unite the country, restore relations with the United States and make peace possible doesn’t seem to count.