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News Analysis: Charges Brought Against Shas Leader Cloud Future of Party and Government

The corruption charges announced this week against Interior Minister Aryeh Deri have pushed a long-simmering crisis into its final stages, threatening the stability of the government, Deri’s own meteoric career and the future of the Sephardic Shas party he has made powerful.

The latest development in the nearly 3-year-old investigation of Deri’s alleged financial wrongdoings occurred earlier this week when Attorney General Yosef Harish presented Deri, who heads the fervently Orthodox party, with a draft copy of a charge sheet drawn up against him.

Harish said he intended to press formal charges against Deri shortly.

Facing charges of bribery and fraud, Deri said he hoped to “persuade” Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to permit him to resign from the Cabinet.

Deri told an Israel Radio reporter he believed that Yosef would agree with him “within a few days” that “the best way for me to conduct my struggle to prove my innocence is as a private citizen.”

The Deri affair is being watched closely here, since it threatens the stability of the governing coalition, led by the Labor Party, with Shas and the left-wing Meretz bloc as junior partners.

According to Deri, Yosef objects to his resigning, or even temporarily stepping down, as interior minister at this stage of the legal proceedings.

Political commentators interpreted Yosef’s position as coming from his fear over the future of the fervently Orthodox Sephardic political movement, which Deri has led, in effect single-handedly, for the past several years.

Deri says his readiness to resign immediately and forgo his right of a preliminary hearing with the attorney general rests on the condition that the charge sheet against him contains all the offenses that the state prosecutor’s office and the police suspect him of committing.

But in a letter to Deri accompanying the draft charge sheet, the attorney general said he retained the right to file further charges and that some were still under consideration.

Deri argues that this represents an attempt to drag out the criminal proceedings against him and to maintain recourse to further trials if the first one does not result in a conviction.

WANTS EVERYTHING ‘ON THE TABLE’

Sources close to the interior minister have said he would even forgo a possibly awkward and acrimonious parliamentary debate over removing his immunity, as long as the prosecutors “lay everything they have on the table.”

Labor and Meretz would certainly be relieved if a debate over Deri’s immunity were avoided, since they fear such a fracas in the Knesset would end with Shas’ secession from the coalition.

Shas members would naturally look to their political allies for support in the debate, but would be unlikely to obtain it.

The possible secession of the six-member Shas faction, which must now be regarded as a cloud hanging over the coalition, would leave the government dependent on the votes of the Arab parties in the Knesset.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other key Labor figures have always made it clear they would not regard themselves as having a mandate to cede land for peace in negotiations with the Arabs unless they were supported by a “Jewish majority” in the legislature.

Both Deri and Rabin, who met in private Monday, said publicly they earnestly desire the continued existence of the present coalition.

DEEP RESENTMENT WITHIN SHAS

Deri brushed aside a call from one of his fellow Shas Knesset members, Rabbi Aryeh Gamliel, to pull the party out of the government on the grounds that the legal action against the interior minister stemmed from ethnic prejudice against Sephardim.

“There is no real difference between Likud and Labor. Both are the establishment, and both want to stamp out any nascent ethnic party,” Gamliel declared.

While Gamliel’s suggestion to pull the party out of the government was not shared by his fellow Knesset members, the sentiment he articulated certainly is.

The chairman of the Shas Knesset faction, Shlomo Benzeri, and one of his colleagues, Deputy Finance Minister Yosef Azran, expressed the same sense of victimization and resentment.

Shas’ official newspaper, Yom Leyom, argued in an editorial that the legal campaign against Deri, accompanied throughout the long police investigation by press leaks, arose out of political vindictiveness — Likud never forgave Shas for seeking to form a government with Labor in 1990 — and continued for “personal reasons.”

These reasons, the paper implied, affected key ministers, and legal and police officials.

Yom Leyom voiced confidence that justice would be done and that Deri would be acquitted. But Gamliel and the hard-liners in Shas say openly they have no confidence in the judiciary and do not necessarily expect their leader to get a fair trial.

Deri himself, in a personal interview with the Ma’ariv newspaper, said his hardest moment this week was a phone call from the father of missing Negev teen-ager Haggit Kikus.

“He made me swear not to crack under pressure. ‘You are the leader of the Sephardim,’ he told me,” Deri recounted. “To think that in his circumstances he had the heart to call and encourage me.”

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