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Israel’s niche party for Jews from Arab countries, the Haredi-run Shas, is welcoming back one of the sector’s most popular figures. He’s a man so adored that he was ranked the 58th -greatest Israeli of all time in a 2005 national poll.
Aryeh Deri spent almost two years in jail for committing fraud and taking bribes while he was minister of the interior. But his absence only made the hearts of many Mizrachim, as Jews from the Middle East are known, grow fonder: They cried persecution by the Ashkenazi-dominated establishment against the man who established and built up Shas and who surprised the country with how strong the Mizrachi party had become.
Deri’s drive, charisma and flair for politics are evident from the fact that he became a minister at just 24 and minister of the interior at just 29. Now Deri, 53, is back as one of three leaders of Shas, the others being Eli Yishai and Ariel Attias.
Deri’s return has made up for the loss of supporters to Amsalem, with Shas looking set to keep its current 10 seats or perhaps even gain one. But it has significance beyond the Mizrachi vote.
Since Deri left Shas, it has become in many respects a hard-right party.
His successor, Yishai, famously declared war on African immigrants, accused them of being AIDS-ridden criminals, and threatened mass round-ups and imprisonment — though he lacked the government authorization to follow through. Deri is believed to want to drop Shas’s battle against asylum seekers.
Of even more significance to national politics, Deri, a dove during the Oslo process, is expected to throw Shas support behind any peace deal the next government may make with the Palestinians. By contrast, if Yishai alone headed the party, it would be expected to block it.
Tel Aviv University political scientist Ephraim Yaar, author of “Shas: The Haredi-Dovish Image in a Changing Reality,” commented: “Deri is a very shrewd bargainer and if he gets from the government enough concessions on things that matter to him most — religious matters and funding for yeshivot — he’ll go with the government [on a peace deal].”