The Felon as Kingmaker

Knesset Member Arye Deri’s appeal to the Supreme Court is expected to take about a year, maybe more. Until then, there is no sign that he’s about to become anything other than what he is today — the political leader of the Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox) party, and negotiator of its coalition demands, which will be put on the table after the May 17 elections.

He’s just been sentenced to four years in prison and fined 250,000 shekels (about $65,000) for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The president and attorney general have declared him unfit for public leadership. The legal establishment and media are speaking in one loud, outraged voice to get him off the stage. Veteran political commentator Hanan Kristal speculated that “80 percent of the public, if not more” are in accord.

But the people who run the political system — with the less-than-emphatic exception of Labor leader Ehud Barak — remain unmoved.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he “appreciated” the court’s decision not to send Deri to prison immediately, thereby, as Netanyahu noted, “allowing Deri to continue his activities until the appeal is decided.” A source close to Netanyahu said the prime minister “will act in accordance with the law, but he’s going to interpret the law as strictly as he can so it will not impinge on his political needs.”

Challenger Yitzhak Mordechai, leader of the Center Party, said nothing at all about whether he would deal with Deri.

Barak at first indicated that Deri should step aside in the coalition talks, then, pressed by reporters, said he wouldn’t negotiate with him. At the same time, though, the Labor leader stressed that he was “convinced” Deri would take himself out of the coalition negotiations after the May 17 elections. And if Deri doesn’t withdraw, would Barak negotiate with him? he was asked. “I don’t deal in speculation,” Barak replied.

Among the prime ministerial candidates, only right-wing National Union leader Benny Begin has had a bad word to say about Deri’s behavior, and only Begin has called adamantly, repeatedly, without qualifications or niceties, for Deri’s removal from party leadership. Begin, who is running a distant fourth in the polls, accused his political rivals of “cowardice,” and of “indirectly collaborating” with Deri’s corrupt ways.

Meanwhile, Shas Knesset members and other political operatives are standing by their champion 100 percent, saying that whoever is elected prime minister will have to deal with Deri and no one else. “We’ll meet on May 17,” Deri informed Barak via a TV news interview. Deri’s claque applauded, announcing him as “the next prime minister!”

Reading out the sentence last week, Jerusalem District Court Judge Yitzhak Tsemah declared that “accepting bribes became a part of [Deri’s] way of life” while he was director-general, then minister, of Interior in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The judge also noted that Deri was the first Israeli politician ever convicting of taking bribes while serving as a government minister. “We thought that the court’s sentence was so strong, so forceful, so impressive, that we figured — what is there to say after that?” said Michael Partem, vice chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, the country’s leading public watchdog group. “The judge even quoted from the Bible on the evils of bribery,” Partem noted.

“The reaction from the political leaders is almost as bad as the corruption [on Deri’s part] itself,” he said in frustration. “We’re watching corruption extend its reach by forming political alliances.”

Even though public antipathy to Deri is overwhelming, Kristal maintained that from the point of view of realpolitik, the candidates are doing the smart thing by keeping the Deri option open. They have more to lose by upsetting the 10 percent or so of Shas voters, than by upsetting the roughly 90 percent of non-Shas voters, he explained.

“Netanyahu needs Shas supporters to get elected, and so does Mordechai. Barak knows they’re not going to vote for him, but he wants to keep them at home on the second round [runoff election for prime minister on June 1]. He doesn’t want to rile them to the point that they’ll come out just to vote against him,” Kristal said.

While the great majority of voters wish their candidates would cut all ties with Deri, this issue isn’t enough to make them change their vote; other issues, mainly the peace process, will determine how they cast their ballots, Kristal said.

Asked what it says about Israel that its political leaders can act against the presumed will of the people on such a weighty, emotional matter as the Deri affair, Kristal replied, “It shows that while Israel is a democracy, there is an island of non-democracy within it. To use a metaphor, it shows that one tea bag [Shas] changes the entire cup of water to its color, and that this color is very unsightly.”

Not only is the presumed public will being thwarted, but so is the will of the attorney general, who acts as the government’s legal adviser. “Political leaders are talking about Deri as a partner for coalition talks while keeping as silent as sheep about the gravity of his deeds,” said Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein.

Yet Netanyahu, the head of the government, has utterly ignored Rubinstein’s urgent counsel. The only MK in the governing coalition who has added his voice to the call to boycott Deri is Likud’s Michael Eitan.

Asked if Rubinstein should quit over being disregarded on such a crucial moral issue, Dr. Arik Carmon, president of the Israel Institute of Democracy, replied: “Definitely not. By all means, he has to stay on as the guardian of the judicial system’s place in Israeli society. This should have been the job of the elected officials, but they’re afraid to do it. If Rubinstein goes, what sort of person would be appointed to take his place?”

Carmon said it was possible that public pressure could “snowball” until every prime ministerial candidate would feel compelled to declare Deri off-limits.

Partem, however, was more pessimistic. He said the only force that could dislodge Deri was Shas voters. “Deep down these people know that corruption is corruption, and that it’s inimical to their interests. The only ray of hope is that the Shas rank and file will realize that this isn’t the leadership it wants,” he said. Shas, however, is betting the opposite. On the morning after he was sentenced, Deri busied himself taping election campaign TV spots for the party he still leads — pending his Supreme Court appeal, which should be decided sometime after the millennium comes.