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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Man at center of Bar-On affair plays key role in policy-making

JERUSALEM, April 17 (JTA) — The man at the center of the political scandal threatening to bring down the Israeli government is the leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Aryeh Deri, on trial for bribery and fraud, was apparently intimately and powerfully involved in the short-lived appointment of Roni Bar- On as attorney general in January. Israel”s state prosecutor is set to decide whether to bring criminal charges against any government officials — and against Deri himself — in connection with the Bar-On appointment. But whatever the legal outcome of the Bar-On affair, the political fallout is likely to have far-reaching implications for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas itself. Netanyahu and his predecessors, from all parties, have countenanced Deri”s undiminished political power for 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. And despite the charges against him, Deri continues to be active at the very core of national policy-making. How has this 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 with the understanding that he would arrange a plea bargain for Deri. The Shas leader faces further charges of misappropriating public funds for political purposes, for which he is due to stand trial when his current trial ends. On that charge, he stands accused of illegally transferring money from the Interior Ministry to Shas-sponsored institutions. Deri”s power over his party has been virtually unfettered ever since Shas came into being, in the early 1980s. 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. Despite his youth and inexperience, Deri impressed both of the original 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 Hebron 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 lent his support to the party 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 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 deliberately blind eye to the legal, ethical and political problems posed by Deri”s continued high-profile leadership of the party despite his legal troubles. For months during his trial, 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. In fact, 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 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. 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. The number of Shas-inspired “hozrim b”teshuvah”” — people who have taken on an Orthodox lifestyle — is itself impressive. But the phenomenon is broader than that: Many Sephardi Israelis who are not themselves observant nevertheless proudly concede that their lives have been touched by Shas activists in their own local communities. 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 believe that slowly, but inexorably, he is realizing 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.