Behind the Deri-Yishai Split

The month of May, 1999, is a month that will never be forgotten, not only by every “Shas’nik,” but by every Israeli as well. The State of Israel had been through a vicious election campaign with plenty of mudslinging, after the Fourteenth Knesset disbanded three years after it was formed. The Shas party, under the leadership of Aryeh Deri, the party’s chairman since its inception, had had ten representatives in the Fourteenth Knesset. That number had risen from six in the Thirteenth Knesset, and the natural result was that there were quite a few new faces on the party roster: a teacher from Chinuch Atzmai in Acco named Dovid Azoulay, who is still in the Knesset today; an egg salesman from the moshav of Yaarah, on the northern border, named Yitzchok Vaknin, who is also still a Knesset member today; a young man named Dovid Tal from Rishon Letzion; and another tall, thin young man, who had been Aryeh Deri’s assistant at the party headquarters, as well as at the Ministry of the Interior for a short time. This young man was none other than Eliyahu Yishai, who was Deri’s political protégé.

This was the situation in the Fourteenth Knesset, which dissolved in the winter of 1999. The Knesset, the government, and even the country itself had grown accustomed to the fact that the Shas party had increased its power and had earned ten mandates in the Knesset, but everyone was certain that this was the last time the Sephardic chareidi party would surprise them in such a way.

Aryeh Deri was not even a candidate to serve in the Fifteenth Knesset, since he was already a convicted criminal – that is, according to the courts of the state. Rav Ovadiah Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party, had made his own unequivocal ruling that Deri was innocent. In general, Rav Ovadiah believed in Aryeh Deri’s innocence; he viewed the judicial persecution of Deri as an attack against the Sephardic Torah world as a whole and against the Shas party in particular. And there was some truth to that assessment. The elitist State of Israel was afraid of Aryeh Deri. There are grounds for the belief that Yitzchak Shamir might have given the command to get rid of Deri. Roni Milo, his right-hand man, was the Minister of the Police at the time, and Dan Meridor, another of Shamir’s cronies, was the Minister of Justice. What more evidence could one need? Add to that the fact that the Attorney General at the time was Dorit Beinish – who later became the Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court – a woman who was known for her hostility to religious Jews in general and to Shas in particular.

Aryeh Deri understood his situation and decided not to include himself in the Shas party’s list for the Fifteenth Knesset. He did include all of the Knesset members from the previous round, and he added some new, charismatic and talented public figures. Deri himself also continued serving as the party chairman, a position in which he dictated the party’s every move. No one disputed Deri’s position, nor did anyone deny his obvious insightfulness and intelligence.

It was Aryeh Deri alone who ran the Shas party’s campaign for the Fifteenth Knesset, a campaign that is held up today as an example to filmmakers and politicians alike. The campaign was based completely on a video entitled Ani Maashim (“I Accuse”). The video contained no special effects, nor were there many images. For the most part, it was a lengthy address delivered by Aryeh Deri himself, with the occasional picture in the background. But it was difficult to watch the video and remain unemotional. Every person who viewed it was bound to react strongly, in one way or another. During the campaign period, thousands of copies of the video were distributed. It was also televised during the broadcasting time allotted by the state to every party in advance of the elections.

I was present when the video was prepared. This took place in a small studio in the Romema neighborhood of Yerushalayim. The original plan was for Shlomo Benizri to read a prepared text. Benizri was a young Knesset member, a baal teshuvah, and a media star, who later became the Minister of Health and was then convicted in a criminal court and incarcerated in Maasiyahu Prison. But I worked with Benizri, and I sensed that his delivery wasn’t working. And then Aryeh Deri arrived. He saw what had already been done, and he was not satisfied. And so he decided to deliver the address himself.

Two huge photographs were brought from Aryeh Deri’s office: one of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and the other of Rav Yitzchak Kaduri. The pictures were placed in the studio, and Deri sat between them, with the two distinguished rabbonim seeming to be peering over his shoulder. Without any notes, in what the professionals call “a single take,” he proceeded to speak for two hours. He then left the studio, leaving the raw footage to be cut and edited by a professional film editor, under the professional direction of none other than Rav Uri Zohar.

And so it was that the video presentation Ani Maashim was born. The name was also given to it by Aryeh Deri.

When the elections were over, the country was in for another shock: Shas had received 17 mandates. Another record had been set. Nothing like it had ever occurred. The average Israeli, whose views were shaped by the media, was seized by fear. The designated prime minister, Ehud Barak, came to Malchei Yisrael Square – or, as it was renamed, Rabin Square – in the heart of Tel Aviv, to deliver a speech, and found himself facing hundreds of people shouting, “Anything but Shas!” In other words, they were demanding that he not bring the Shas party into the government. But Barak had no choice. Shas was the third largest party in the country, after Labor, which had 25 mandates, and Likud, with its 21 mandates. Ehud Barak did not dare to do what Netanyahu did two years ago — exclude the chareidim from the government. Nor did he wish to do that. But even had he wanted to, he couldn’t have done so.

There was an atmosphere of euphoria in the Shas party, but then Barak dropped his political bomb. “I will not invite the Shas party to negotiate terms for joining the government unless Aryeh Deri is dismissed from his position as chairman of the party,” Barak announced arrogantly. “I will not sit at the table with a party that is headed by a criminal!”

Rav Ovadiah Yosef was in a major quandary. His distress was visible on his face; he wept with sorrow. But he ultimately decided that the benefit of the Torah world took precedence over the personal benefit of Aryeh Deri. “We have no choice,” he told Deri. Deri, for his part, asked for a week or two to demonstrate that he could bring Barak to his knees, but Rav Ovadiah was concerned about the ramifications, and he stood by his ruling. The position of chairman of the Shas party was handed over to Eliyahu Yishai, on a temporary basis. “For now, at any rate,” Rav Ovadiah told Deri, “you are supposed to go to prison, and the party will have to appoint a temporary chairman until you are released.”

It seems that that was the moment when the seeds of discord were first planted between Deri and Yishai. But it wasn’t because the party leadership was being transferred from the man who had founded and built the Shas party to his most junior assistant. Rather, there was another reason entirely: Some people had suggested to Deri that the idea to demand his dismissal had been suggested to Barak by people from within Shas itself. There was a suspicion that it might have been Yishai, or someone else on his behalf, who had done so. Some suspected an attorney named David Glass z”l, who was very close with Rav Ovadiah Yosef and served as the Shas party’s legal advisor.

A few years went by. Aryeh Deri was released from prison and expected that the most natural thing would happen: His position would be returned to him, as he had been promised. But his expectations were not met. Eli Yishai, who enjoyed the position of party chairman, worked with Glass to convince Rav Ovadiah Yosef that the Shas party was so successful that there was no reason to create an upheaval in the party again. True, the position had been promised to Deri, but again, the Torah world was more important.

It was only in advance of the most recent elections, for the Nineteenth Knesset – which has just disbanded – and after Aryeh Deri threatened to run on a separate list, that Rav Ovadiah Yosef announced that Deri would be restored to his position as the party leader. The decision was made after significant hesitation, and with qualifications, but it happened. It was decided that the party would be led by a triumvirate of officials: Aryeh Deri would be chairman, but he would work closely with two senior members of the party, Eliyahu Yishai and Ariel Attias, both of whom had been ministers in the Eighteenth Knesset.

Deri was satisfied, more or less, with the arrangement, but it was clear that it would not work. If two kings cannot wear a single crown, three men certainly cannot occupy the same position. It was clear that there would be conflicts, and those conflicts indeed came. During the Nineteenth Knesset, there were constant disputes between Deri and Yishai. Deri claimed several times that Yishai was making efforts to undermine him, just as he had done in the past, with his secret suggestion to Ehud Barak.

Parenthetically, I once asked Deri – who is universally recognized as a political genius – what he would have done had Rav Ovadiah Yosef not ruled that the party should give in to Barak’s demand. Barak had announced that he would not negotiate with Shas, and the party would have been in the opposition, I pointed out; that was one of Rav Ovadiah’s greatest fears. Deri laughed. “I would have formed a bloc with Arik Sharon,” he told me, “and we would have had 38 mandates together. Barak would not have been able to form a government without us, and he would have been forced to go to the president and inform him that he could not put together a government. In that case, the president would have given the task to Arik Sharon, and a government would have been established, with or without Barak, but with Sharon as the prime minister.”

A brief explanation of the electoral system in Israel is in order. Once the results of the elections are in, the president calls the leader of each party that was elected to the Knesset and asks each one whom they recommend to be the first to attempt to put together a coalition and, by extension, a government. The president has no obligation to listen to the recommendations, but if the majority recommends a specific person, then it is the natural assumption that that person will be able to put together a majority in the Knesset. In practice, the president tends to offer the task to the leader of the party that has received the largest number of mandates. That individual always makes sure in advance that his projected partners in the government will recommend him.

This is the reason why Yitzchak Herzog has now agreed to establish a rotation with Tzippi Livni for the position of prime minister. He agreed to share that position with her, on the condition that she would join forces with him. Even though Livni is not “worth” many mandates, the few that she has might result in Herzog’s party receiving more votes than Netanyahu’s. In fact, the polls today predict that Netanyahu’s Likud party will receive an equal number of votes to the joint Herzog-Livni party (Labor). This is also the reason that Netanyahu (Likud) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) joined forces in the previous elections to form a single party: Together, they formed the largest party, and Netanyahu was thus given the first opportunity to assemble a government.

Experience has shown that the first person to try generally succeeds. There has been one case of a party leader who did not succeed in assembling a government: Tzippi Livni. In the elections for the Eighteenth Knesset, the Kadima party, headed by Livni, received 28 mandates, while Likud, under Netanyahu’s leadership, received 27 mandates. Livni was given the go-ahead to form a government, but she turned out to be a resounding failure. She set herself up in opposition to the chareidi parties, and when she failed to assemble a coalition within the designated time frame, the president announced that the task would be passed on to Netanyahu. Of course, he succeeded in putting together a coalition and a government. Since that time, Livni has been widely perceived as a “loser.”

Let us return to the subject of Deri and the results of the elections for the Fifteenth Knesset, and Barak’s ultimatum against him. Deri made what seemed to be an exaggerated comparison in the video: “Barak sits in Caesarea as if he is the ruler of the land and everyone must bow before him. We must inform him that if he wishes to meet with us and discuss forming a coalition, he must join us.”

I asked Deri, “Who said that Sharon would agree to form a bloc with Shas?”

“Not only would he have agreed,” Deri asserted, “but we had sealed a pact before the elections. We sat together on his farm, and we shook hands on the deal.”

That is Deri. He is a genius. He foresaw the results of the elections, and he had his strategy prepared. Seeing that I had trouble believing that the deal was truly final, he said, “You don’t believe me? You can ask the ‘guarantor’ for the deal, who was present at our discussions.”

And who was that?

“Rav Shlomo Amar,” Deri revealed. “Do you know him?” At the time, Rav Amar was not yet the chief rabbi of Israel. But Deri already foresaw that he would hold that position four years later, in 2003. At the time, he was still a rov in Petach Tikvah; he had not yet even taken the post of rov of Tel Aviv.

Ultimately, Ehud Barak established his government, which included members of the following parties: Yisrael Achat, Shas, Meretz, Hamercaz, Mafdal, Yahadut HaTorah, and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah. When the government was established, there were 18 ministers; the number later rose to 24. Yahadut HaTorah left the government and the coalition on September 5, 1999, after the Israel Electric Company transported a turbine on Shabbos. Shas remained in the government. From that point on, Shas – under the leadership of Eliyahu Yishai – found its power waning. At the time, it was left with only 11 mandates. Even in the most recent elections, for the Nineteenth Knesset, the party – this time under Deri’s leadership – emerged with only 11 mandates. And as everyone knows, Shas remained in the opposition, along with Yahadut HaTorah, when Netanyahu gave in to the joint ultimatum of Lapid and Bennett and refused to include the chareidim in the government.

This government fell before its time – although from our perspective, it was the best possible time. The difference between Shas as it existed until now and the Shas of today lies, of course, in the absence of Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l. Let people say what they wish, but it is clear that it was Rav Ovadiah who catapulted Shas to its level of power. Rav Ovadiah was the driving force behind Shas and the person who gave it the magnetic attraction it exerted on the masses. Had he been alive, there is no question that Eli Yishai would never have dared to dream of establishing a competing party.

Monday night, Eliyahu Yishai held a press conference and announced his decision to form of a new party, although no one who knows him can figure out how he can have the audacity to do so. Throughout the 13 years he has spent leading the Shas party, Yishai has been anything but brazen and audacious. There may be some individuals who are encouraging him to believe that he is worth more than Shas and Aryeh Deri together.

The Shas party, throughout its years, has weathered many attempts to compete with it. Its competitors have all met with absolute, resounding failure. There is a danger that Yishai will not garner the minimum number of votes needed to enter the Knesset. All he can do is cause damage to the Shas party and to the Torah world by taking away votes – for we have already learned that every mandate can have a decisive impact.