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Shas leader quits as party head; move could affect coalition talks

JERUSALEM, June 15 (JTA) — The chairman of Shas has resigned all his responsibilities as party leader in a move that could clear the way for the fervently Orthodox party to join Prime-Minister-elect Ehud Barak’s governing coalition. Aryeh Deri made his dramatic announcement Tuesday before a meeting of Shas Knesset members, stating that he was abdicating all his party responsibilities. In a letter to Shas legislators, Deri wrote, “I prayed that my resignation from the Knesset would help achieve national appeasement and greater unity,” adding that after having consulted “all rabbis” he decided to resign from all his responsibilities in Shas in order not to be “even a symbolic impediment.” Outgoing Labor Minister Eliyahu Yishai later said the Shas legislators did not accept the resignation and would go to the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in hopes of reversing the decision. Deri, who has already resigned from the Knesset, was sentenced in April to four years in jail on charges of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of the public trust. A Jerusalem court recently stayed his sentence, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court. Deri, 40, burst onto the political scene 15 years ago, turning Shas into a political power that served in both Labor and Likud governments. In last month’s elections, Shas increased its Knesset representation to 17 seats from 10 in the previous legislature, making it the third largest Knesset faction after Labor and Likud. A day after the elections, Deri announced that he was retiring from political life. But questions have remained as to whether he would continue to direct Shas policies from behind the scenes. The secular Meretz Party, which has stipulated that Deri withdraw completely from Shas activities before it would join a government that includes Shas, was planning to meet this week to decide how to respond to Deri’s announcement. Another secular party, Shinui, has vowed to stay out of a coalition that includes Shas or any other fervently Orthodox party. Even if Meretz agrees to join a coalition that also includes Shas, coalition negotiations are still likely to be difficult over the issue of how Cabinet portfolios are distributed. Shas is demanding four portfolios, “two of them senior ministries,” according to Yishai. Barak reportedly intends to offer to Shas only three: Labor, Tourism and Science. Shas also seeks to retain its control over the powerful Interior Ministry, which is being sought by the immigrants rights Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, another potential coalition partner.