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Behind the Headlines: Man at Center of Bar-on Affair Plays Key Role in Policy- Making

Whatever the legal outcome of the Bar-On Affair, the political fallout is bound to be one of intense embarrassment for the government.

For some three months, Israeli police have been investigating allegations of corruption surrounding the short-lived appointment earlier this year of Jerusalem lawyer Roni Bar-On to the post of attorney general.

Senior government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, have been questioned.

But with the probe nearing an end, State Prosecutor Edna Arbel expects to issue recommendations by Passover on whether criminal charges will be filed against any government officials.

The facts being unearthed by the investigation corroborate the original Israel Television report at least to the extent of confirming that Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri, on trial for bribery and fraud, was intimately and powerfully involved in Bar-On’s appointment in January.

The essence of the state prosecutor’s task will be to decide, even if the facts are proven, whether they support criminal indictments against any government officials or against Deri himself — or merely tell a sordid tale of political impropriety.

But the embarrassment is not — or should not be — confined to the current Likud-led government alone.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides may have been more blatant than their predecessors in giving Deri a key role in selecting the country’s top legal official, those predecessors, from all parties, have countenanced Deri’s undiminished political power for many years.

Deri was forced by the High Court of Justice to step down in 1993 as interior minister because of the charges of financial misconduct that had first been brought against him several years earlier.

But he continues as chairman of the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, which continues to thrive and grow.

Despite the charges against him, Deri continues therefore to be active at the very core of national policy-making.

How has this unsavory situation evolved over the seven years since criminal allegations were first levied against Deri?

And, perhaps more importantly, what are the chances of the situation changing now, in the wake of the Bar-On Affair?

Bar-On, a Likud activist, was allegedly appointed attorney general on the understanding that he would arrange a plea-bargain for Deri.

Deri faces further charges of misappropriating public funds for political purposes, for which he is due to stand trial when his current trial ends.

Bar-On won Cabinet approval Jan. 10, but stepped down two days later amid growing charges in political and legal spheres that he lacked the experience to hold Israel’s top legal post.

Two weeks later, the Cabinet unanimously approved District Judge Elyakim Rubinstein to serve as Israel’s attorney general.

When Bar-On stepped down there was no indication of any political dealmaking with Deri in his appointment. Those charges emerged days later in the Israel Television report, and along with them arose questions anew about the Shas leader himself.

Deri’s power over his party has been virtually unfettered ever since Shas came into being, in the early 1980s.

Despite his youth and inexperience at the time — Deri was born in 1959 in Morocco, and came to Israel with his family as a young boy, spending his formative years in fervently Orthodox yeshivas — Deri impressed both of the spiritual leaders of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Eliezer Shach, with his outstanding political and practical abilities.

He gained a foothold in the Yosef household when, as a student at the Hevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he was hired to coach one of the Sephardi chief rabbi’s younger sons.

“I had one ear on my pupil’s learning and the other on the rabbi’s activities in the next room,” Deri was to recount later. “All the problems of Sephardi Jewry, in Israel and abroad, passed through that room.”

Shas evolved out of a strong sense of discrimination among young fervently Orthodox, Sephardi yeshiva scholars.

Shach gave it his support as a way of expressing his own deep resentment of the Chasidic-dominated leadership of the fervently Orthodox Agudat Yisrael movement.

Yosef was especially resentful at that time over legislation that required him and his Ashkenazi colleague to relinquish the Chief Rabbinate after a single 10-year term.

Later, Shach and Yosef split, and Shach formed his own separate fervently Orthodox Ashkenazi party, Degel Hatorah.

Shas’ rise from nothing to four Knesset seats in the 1984 election took the Israeli political community by total surprise.

At each subsequent election Shas has caused further surprises by surging ahead.

Today, with 10 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, it is the third largest political party.

Without its votes, the Netanyahu government could not long remain in power.

Over the years, Deri rose through the ranks of the Interior Ministry, with his influence extending far beyond the confines of the ministry.

Insiders knew even back in the mid-1980s that this young man was the power behind Yosef’s throne in Shas.

Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin knew that this was the person they had to deal with in order to get things done, and done fast and efficiently.

Knesset arithmetic explains the Likud’s tenacious cultivation of the Shas rabbis and politicians.

It also goes a long way toward explaining why both Likud and Labor politicians have, for so many years, turned a deliberate blind eye to the legal, ethical and indeed political problems posed by Deri’s continued high-profile leadership of the party despite his legal troubles.

For months, Deri would spend his mornings at the Jerusalem District Court and his afternoons at his political office or in the Knesset.

Now he has been excused by the court from attending all its sessions.

On the face of it, the Bar-On Affair has failed to elicit any manifestations of embarrassment within Shas itself.

To the contrary, the party gave Deri and Yosef a rousing show of support at a recent mass meeting in Tel Aviv.

But one mass meeting, attended by thousands of loyalists, may not accurately reflect the feelings of tens of thousands of less committed Shas voters.

In the leadership echelon itself, moreover, there may be faint cracks beginning to appear in the facade of solidarity.

The Shas Knesset faction, for instance, delicately balked at a proposal, presumably initiated by Deri though articulated by one of his aides, that they all join in a high-profile protest against the ongoing police inquiry into the Bar-On Affair.

Privately, key Shas figures bemoan the close connection between Deri and Yosef.

They admit that in the long term it could prove disastrous for their movement – – especially if Deri is convicted in his bribery trial.

But they admit, too, that this unique bond between the elderly rabbi and the still-young “super-fixer” seems unassailable.

Yosef, they say, is simply not prepared to hear bad things about Deri spoken in his presence.

In public appearances, the rabbi is unstinting in his praise for Deri’s successes in building up Shas’ network of educational and welfare programs at the grass-roots level.

For Yosef, the chief criterion is this outreach work on the grass-roots level.

He takes the credit, for himself and for his movement, for the widespread “back to roots” sentiment sweeping through much of Israel’s Sephardi community.

The number of Shas-inspired “hozrim b’teshuva” — that is, people who profess to have taken on an Orthodox lifestyle — is itself impressive.

But the phenomenon is broader than that: Many Sephardi Israelis who are not themselves meticulously observant nevertheless proudly concede that their lives have been touched by Shas activists in their own local communities.

For Yosef, this augurs a “return” to Orthodox observance further down the line.

Meanwhile, his instructions to the party cadres are to encourage allegiance even among the unobservant, and above all to keep opening kindergartens, schools and community centers.

In the words of Mordechai Bar-On, a former Meretz Knesset member and a keen observer of sociopolitical processes, Shas is “the most interesting and most authentic phenomenon to have evolved in Israel in recent decades.”

In the day-to-day expansion of Shas’ activities on this grass-roots level, Yosef sees Deri’s energetic efficiency as vital, and he is loath even to contemplate carrying on without his acolyte.

Nevertheless, those who know the rabbi know, too, that for all his singlemindedness and his simple turns of phrase, Yosef is no Don Quixote.

Slowly, but inexorably, the realization is growing, even in the heart of the rabbi, that the day may be approaching when Shas will have to crown a new leader — or risk losing the sympathy of ordinary Sephardi Israelis.

That sympathy, after all, is the basis of its success — and the foundation of all its future political plans and religious aspirations.

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