Criminal Investigation Against Shas Leader Has Party Wary of Collapse

The recent criminal investigation launched against Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri has sparked concerns that the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party may not survive his potential departure.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced Thursday that Deri, currently the interior minister, will be the focus of a corruption investigation over alleged financial improprieties in his and his family’s real estate holdings.

Deri served as interior minister from 1988 to 1993, when the Supreme Court forced him to resign due to an ongoing corruption investigation.

In 1999, he was convicted of receiving bribes, fraud and breach of trust, and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was paroled in July 2002, after having served two years. Deri’s conviction carried moral turpitude, which under Israeli law barred him from public service for seven years. Once that time elapsed, and after a few years in the private sector, Deri re-entered politics and was elected to the Knesset in 2013.

Deri’s appointment as interior minister was contested by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which filed a High Court of Justice petition against it. The court has yet to rule on the petition.

Party insiders raised concerns over the weekend that if Deri is forced to resign as Shas leader, the party may not recover. There was also speculation whether Deri’s main political rival, former Shas head Eli Yishai, can be persuaded to return.

Yishai was named Shas chairman in 2000, following Deri’s conviction. Shortly after Deri’s political comeback in 2013, Yishai was ousted as Shas leader in Deri’s favor. Yishai formed a new party, Yahad, ahead of the 2015 general election, but failed to meet the electoral threshold.

While Yishai has made no obvious political moves since the 2015 elections, he is rumored to be exploring joining Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. Both Yishai and Kahlon have denied the move, but Kulanu sources told Israel Hayom advanced negotiations are underway, and that if they come to fruition, Yishai would come on board as Kahlon’s number two.

Nevertheless, Yishai may find it difficult to reconcile his religious positions with Kahlon’s liberal line on issues such as maintaining the High Court of Justice’s status, the need for public transportation on Shabbat, and gay rights. Should that be the case, he may explore joining the National Union party.

Still, Shas insiders said that despite the negotiations with other parties, if Deri leaves Shas, the door would be open for Yishai’s return.

Wary of being left leaderless, Yishai may prove Shas’ only lifeline, in which case he would be able to condition his return on many things, including giving his spiritual patron Rabbi Meir Mazuz, who is not a member of the Council of Sages, the final say on issues such as religion and state, and future political deals.

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