Tidbits From Israel
By Ron Jager
The popular ultra-Orthodox Israeli politician Aryeh Deri is preparing a comeback after a 13-year hiatus that included a prison term for accepting bribes. The charismatic Deri, 53, was a rising young star who transformed Shas from a small, niche party into a major factor in Israeli politics before he went to prison.
During the past few weeks, the national media in Israel has been very forgiving of Aryeh Deri, barely mentioning his conviction on bribe-taking and serving three years behind bars—and there’s a reason for that. In March 1999, when Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas political party in Israel, was about to be sentenced for his conviction on bribery charges, he produced an array of character witnesses to testify in his favor. One of them, the former mayor of Tel Aviv, Shlomo Lahat, said he remembers the late prime minister Yitzchak Rabin saying that he was impressed with Deri’s “positive attitude towards the Palestinians and the peace process in general.” Another famous witness for Deri was former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shachak, who testified that Deri had contributed to the peace process under the Rabin government. At least one commentator, attorney Elyakim HaEtzni of Kiryat Arba, raised questions at the time about the propriety of implications that one who supported Oslo should have his prison sentence reduced.
For most of us who have been preoccupied with the presidential election in the States, following day by day every move by the Obama campaign, as they slander and lie their way to Election Day—the reaction to the Benghazi terrorist attack and the murder of Ambassador Stevens being only the latest example—having to switch to the local scene is a kind of relief.
So who is Aryeh Deri? Who is the Shas Party? Shas, a Sephardic chareidi party established in 1984, is Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox political party. Opposition to Zionism is considered one of the main ideological positions that differentiate chareidim from Modern Orthodox Jews. Shas’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the most influential public figures of his generation, ordered the reinstatement of Aryeh Deri into the party’s leadership. But while Shas considers itself a chareidi party, it has been more tolerant of Zionism. In the Knesset, Shas fights on behalf of traditional chareidi causes, such as defending army exemptions for their yeshiva students. Yet unlike the United Torah Judaism party, a competing chareidi party, Shas will accept cabinet-level positions in Israeli governments.
Aryeh Deri had a central role in advancing the Oslo process. Deri led the Shas Party politically from its inception until he was forced to resign in 1999 following his conviction. The Shas Party abstained in the first Oslo Accords vote in the Knesset in 1993, and voted against the Second Oslo Agreement in 1995. However, this does not tell the full story. Shas joined with Meretz and Labor (both left-wing parties) in 1992 to form the Rabin government that forged the Oslo Accords. Without the six Knesset seats of Shas, the 62-member government coalition would have fallen. Deri’s Shas was not a left-wing party, but it refrained from undermining the first Oslo agreement. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee put it this way: “Deri was a key player in the Oslo Accords signed with the Palestinians.” But possibly most telling of all, the Labor Party’s own Davar newspaper, now defunct, headlined its issue of September 19, 1993—a week after the first Oslo Agreement was signed—as follows: “The Labor Government cooked up a deal to postpone the trial of Aryeh Deri in exchange for the support of Shas for the Oslo agreement.” The deal was apparently not implemented.
The Oslo Agreement, one of Israel’s greatest strategic blunders, was based on two basic premises that have been proven to be false: “land for peace” and the “two-state solution.” Both of these premises have been disproven over the years at a cost of thousands of killed and wounded. The IDF retook control of Judea and Samaria in 2003, putting an end to the years of Palestinian Arab suicide bombers and terror that traumatized the nation for a number of years.
A return of the former kingmaker to lead the powerful Shas Party could complicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for reelection: Under Deri, who is considered to be more dovish than Shas’s current leader regarding concessions to the Palestinian Arabs, the party may no longer be the automatic Netanyahu coalition ally that it has been, and this spells bad news for Prime Minister Netanyahu as we approach election day on January 22. Deri tends to be inconsistent and unpredictable, a master intriguer, a serial plotter with boundless ambitions. He’s friendly with Israel’s leading politicians on the left, which makes him potentially explosive politically. This demeanor is very different from the last four years of political stability, in part due to the current head of the Shas Party, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who was exemplary in his loyalty to the right-wing government of Netanyahu.
Welcome to election season in Israel, circa 2013. As Shas becomes the party of social justice and the have-nots, we should remain steadfast in remembering the role that Aryeh Deri played in making the Oslo Agreement one of Israel’s greatest strategic blunders and be on guard for the potential dangers lurking beyond election day concerning the continued well-being of the 700,000 Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria. v
Ron Jager is a 25-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a field mental-health officer and as commander of the central psychiatric military clinic for reserve soldiers at Tel-Hashomer. Since retiring from active duty in 2005, he has been providing consultancy services to NGOs, implementing psychological trauma treatment programs in Israel. Ron currently serves as a strategic advisor to the director of the Shomron Liaison Office. To contact him, e-mail email@example.com.