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Probe into Shas Activities Still Mesmerizing Israelis

The ongoing probe of alleged fraud, bribery and misappropriation of funds at the highest levels of Shas, the Orthodox Sephardic party, became mired in extraneous issues this week but continued to mesmerize the public.

Appearing at a court hearing Tuesday, a senior police officer denied that either the police or the state prosecutor is trying to persuade young Shas activists to turn state’s evidence if the cases against Interior Minister Arye Deri and Communications Minister Rafael Pinchas ever go to trial.

The officer, Meir Gilboa, was testifying at a hearing involving two former Deri aides.

Police sources, meanwhile, say they are anxious to question Shas Knesset member Yair Levy, a confidant of Deri’s, when he returns from the United States.

Levy went there immediately after Passover as a guest of the United States Information Agency’s visiting parliamentarians program and has remained there on his own.

His continued absence and the absence of his wife and children from their Bnei Brak home raised suspicion that Levy was trying to avoid a grilling by police.

But on Tuesday evening, he telephoned Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky and sent him a letter by facsimile from a New York physician, confirming that Levy is undergoing tests for a heart ailment, which will keep him in the United States for two more weeks.

Shilansky said Wednesday there is “no reason not to believe him.” Levy also reportedly told the speaker he was deeply hurt by “what is being done to me while I am on alien soil.”

THREAT TO QUIT THE GOVERNMENT

The latest twists in what the local media call the “Shas affair” is front-page news here.

Shas, whose five Knesset seats are essential to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition government, has become increasingly irritated by the seemingly endless police investigation of Deri, Pinhasi and other ranking party figures.

Threats have surfaced in Shas circles to quit the coalition and topple the government.

Rabbi Arye Gamliel, another Shas Knesset member, declared Tuesday that he would henceforth refuse to support the government with his vote. He accused Likud of trying to “destroy Shas at all costs.”

Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s spiritual mentor, is expected to convene the party’s sages and Knesset members to decide whether to endorse Gamliel’s position.

The investigation has been proceeding for the better part of a year. The police reportedly forwarded several files on Deri to the state prosecutor, with a recommendation that formal charges be brought against the minister. But no final decision has been made.

Deri and the others are accused primarily of channeling government funds to favored Shas-linked religious institutions through the budgets of local municipal authorities, which are controlled by the Interior Ministry.

According to press accounts, the principals in the case are also suspected of personal improprieties involving public funds.

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