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News Analysis: Deri’s Conviction Changes How Netanyahu, Barak Go After Votes

The four-year jail sentence imposed last week on Shas leader Aryeh Deri for taking bribes has forced Israel’s candidates for prime minister to re-examine their vote-getting tactics.

Deri’s political power is undisputed: He was responsible for the evolution of the 15-year-old fervently Orthodox Shas Party into a political force that, with 10 seats, is the third-largest party in the outgoing Knesset.

That power has also given Shas control over the Interior Ministry portfolio not only in the present Likud government, but in the Labor government that preceded it.

In the wake of Deri’s conviction and sentencing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wanting Deri’s numerous supporters firmly in his camp for the May 17 voting, has decided that he would be willing to negotiate with Deri to discuss a future coalition if he were re-elected premier.

After much deliberation, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak went the other way, announcing that he would not hold coalition negotiations with Deri if elected prime minister — and that he would not agree to give Shas the Interior Ministry again.

In effect writing off Shas support with that announcement, Barak has instead turned his attention on another powerful voting segment of the Israeli population, immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres won close to 40 percent of the immigrant vote in the 1996 election. The polls show Barak faring worse than that in his current campaign.

Barak is attempting to rally immigrant anger against Shas, maintaining that there were too many cases in which the Shas-led Interior Ministry harshly treated members of the immigrant community who were not classified by religious law as Jewish.

Barak wanted to see the ministry in the hands of a party that “would treat every person entitled to make aliyah under the Law of Return as equal,” he said, referring to the law that entitles relatives of Jews to make aliyah even if they themselves are not halachically Jewish.

Barak recounted the story of a young soldier he had hosted at a Passover seder whose mother, halachically non-Jewish, had been deported by order of the Interior Ministry.

Shas’ reaction to Barak’s stance was swift.

The rabbis of the party, said Deri, would “doubtless take Barak’s positions into account” when they decided which of the prime ministerial candidates they would call on their followers to support.

The announcements from Netanyahu and Barak did not come easily, given the legal issues emerging from Deri’s conviction. After a trial that lasted four years, Deri was convicted of pocketing $155,000 while holding several positions in the Interior Ministry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The question of Deri’s possible role in post-election coalition negotiations has become, in the days since his sentence was handed down, the focus of much public debate.

In their initial reactions to the court’s decision, Netanyahu, Barak and Yitzhak Mordechai, the Center Party candidate for premier, all waffled, almost in unison.

All expressed sympathy for Deri and for his family. All voiced support for the rule of law and the decisions of the courts.

All steered carefully clear, however, of saying they would not deal with Deri if he led his party, after the election, in coalition negotiations. Barak initially said that question was hypothetical and therefore need not be addressed.

A fourth prime ministerial candidate, rightist coalition leader Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, was the sole person in the race to pledge firmly and unequivocally that he would not negotiate with Deri — because the Shas leader now has the status of a convicted criminal.

As a result of the court’s verdict, Deri no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence, Begin argued.

This was also the stance adopted by virtually the entire legal and judicial community in the wake of the verdict.

This near-unanimous sentiment of the nation’s lawyers and judges was given powerful expression over the weekend by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, the government’s top legal adviser.

He lambasted the three candidates for premier, describing their failure to eschew any further political dealing with Deri as a “silence of the lambs.”

Rubinstein also decried Deri’s own behavior as a perversion of the spirit of the law, which required, the attorney general said, that a man convicted of such serious crimes and sentenced to jail “betake himself to a corner” and stop playing a role in public life.

Rubinstein’s harsh comments coincided with a rumbling rebellion within the top echelon of the Labor Party.

Four of the best-known figures on the party’s Knesset list — Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Uzi Baram and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer — publicly differed with their leader’s initially cautious equivocations and demanded that Barak make a flat and public refusal to negotiate with Deri after the election.

Barak writhed, apparently anxious not to alienate the Shas constituency.

He was sure, he said, that Deri himself would “know how to behave” and would step down after the election.

But Barak’s lieutenants signaled that this was not good enough, and finally, in an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Barak said the words they demanded to hear from him — that he would not be prepared to negotiate with Deri and that, if elected premier, he would not agree to Shas holding the Interior Ministry.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, ultimately decided to maintain his close embrace of the Shas leader. But this did not mean, he was quick to point out, that he was turning his back on the rule of law.

Netanyahu insisted that Deri remains a legitimate political partner, pending a verdict on his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Indeed, the Jerusalem District Court has accepted Deri’s plea for a stay of sentence pending his appeal. He has 45 days in which to submit the appeal. And legal sources expect it will take more than a year — and possibly two years – – until the appeal is heard and a decision reached.

Under the strict letter of the law, Deri need not resign his parliamentary seat. A law providing that convicted criminals must quit the Knesset was passed in 1995 — but Deri’s crimes were committed before then.

By the same token, Deri can legally run for re-election and represent his party in coalition negotiations after the election.

He will also stay out of jail pending the outcome of appeals.

Netanyahu was quick to cite these legalities this week.

“The law is that Deri can stay in the Knesset,” Netanyahu said Monday. “That is the legal import of the court’s decision. I respect the law and the courts.”

Observers expect that the prime minister will tighten his alliance with Shas and with the other Orthodox parties in the few weeks remaining before the May 17 elections.

As part of his strategy, Netanyahu is hoping that if a runoff vote is needed on June 1, Orthodox supporters will turn out in strength on their rabbis’ orders to vote for him, while critical sections of Barak’s constituency — Israeli Arabs and left-liberal immigrants, whom he views as less disciplined and more apathetic — will prefer a day sunbathing on the beach or picnicking in the country.

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