Back from New York, where there was no breakthrough with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Barak faces a huge and growing outdoor happening southeast of Tel Aviv.
Outside the walls of the prison where Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, has begun serving his term, hundreds of Deri supporters have set up camp in an empty lot near the jail.
Each night, they are joined by thousands – sometimes more than 10,000 – sympathizers from around the country who come to pray, sing and otherwise demonstrate their demand that Deri be freed.
The fallen Shas leader and longtime senior Cabinet minister was sentenced last year to four years’ imprisonment for accepting bribes and misappropriating state funds.
In July, the term was reduced to three years by the Supreme Court on appeal. Earlier this month, Deri entered the Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramla to begin serving his sentence.
“In have full confidence in the mayor of Ramla, Yoel Lavie, whom I know from army days, and in the Ramla police,” Barak said Tuesday. “They will ensure that the law is observed.”
While Barak brims with confidence, residents of the area adjacent to the jail are having a hard time sleeping, as nocturnal selichot services – special pre- Rosh Hashanah prayers – go on into the wee hours, relayed over a powerful address system so that those within the prison walls can join in the refrains with those outside.
Stalls and booths have also sprung up to sell items of temporal and spiritual sustenance to the crowds. These – like the tents and awnings and makeshift synagogues that have sprung up – are all illegal structures.
Nor has a license been obtained for the open-ended mass gathering itself, which officials of the predominantly Sephardi Shas Party say will continue as long as Deri is behind bars.
Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has proposed that the police be ordered to dismantle the encampment and disperse the throngs – by force if necessary.
For the moment, Beilin’s remains a lone voice, and the general feeling in government circles is that ordering in the police would trigger a violent confrontation.
But “Yeshivat Sha’agat Aryeh,” or “The Lion’s Roar Yeshiva,” as the pro-Deri activists have named their encampment, could be much more than just a law-and- order problem for the local police – as well as for the government and the entire political establishment.
Remarkably, many of the demonstrators who flock to the site each night are not Shas supporters at all, nor even Sephardim.
Rather, they are Ashkenazi haredim, most of them Chasidim. They seem to regard Deri’s cause as an all-haredi cause, worthy of their active support and involvement.
This has led observers of the Orthodox scene to suggest that the incarcerated Deri is becoming in jail a haredi leader on the national level, transcending the traditional Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide.
Of course it is still early, and the mass movement at the prison gates may yet dissipate.
The test of this new mass movement’s resilience will come after Yom Kippur, when the annual selichot and penitence season is over and people want to spend the family festival of Sukkot back at their own homes.
Will the tent camp then be forsaken? Or soon after, when the weather begins to change and colder, wetter nights make roughing it in the open air less comfortable?
While the longer-term scenario is still uncertain, there can be no doubt that Barak’s recently announced agenda aimed at secular voters has had the side effect of drawing in the crowds to Ramla and firing up the rabbis and Orthodox politicians who address the faithful outside the prison walls.
Barak is proposing a series of radical changes in the decades-long “status quo” arrangements governing state and religion in Israel.
His agenda includes civil marriages, at least for those whom the Orthodox establishment refuses to marry religiously. He wants public transportation on the Sabbath, as well as El Al flights on the day of rest – like every other international airline. He wants fervently Orthodox schools, which are funded mainly by the state, to teach secular courses.
For the haredim, this catalogue amounts to a declaration of war on the position of Orthodox Judaism as the established state religion.
For the thousands milling around outside Ma’asiyahu Jail, Barak’s ideas are the major talking point – and they provide a focus of resentment.
The people there know that in order to implement his new agenda, the premier would have to set up an all-secular government that excludes the National Religious Party, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Granted, many political pundits see the whole exercise as one designed to prepare an election platform rather than a realistic program of legislation in the present Knesset, which looks increasingly likely to seek new elections when it returns from its recess in October.
By the same token, these pundits say, any breakthrough in the now-faltering peace negotiations with the Palestinians would sweep all the premier’s talk of a “civil agenda” into instant oblivion.
But for the moment, it is fueling a new and unprecedented mass protest movement that could make its own impact on party alignments in the present Knesset – and on the outcome of the next election.