At noon on Monday, Oct. 28 — shortly before the conference at Shas headquarters in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Hotzvim, filled with members of the party’s Knesset faction — some unknown person hung a photo on the wall showing Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Shas Party Chairman Aryeh Deri at a time when they were especially close. In an unusual move, Deri decided to hold Shas’ weekly meeting in its offices in Har Hotzvim, instead of at the Knesset. Within Shas, the decision was interpreted as an attempt by Deri to avoid contact with the media, just one week after his resounding failure in the local elections.
The mood in that crowded room was unsettled and tense. Some members of the party’s Knesset faction snickered when they noticed the lone photograph adorning the room’s stark white walls. The photo wasn’t there before, and it had obviously been put up hastily upon orders from above, not only to clarify who the real boss of the party was, but also who appointed him: the late Rabbi Yosef, who passed away this month on Oct. 7.
The overall atmosphere of the meeting was somber. Sitting on either side of Deri were the party’s Knesset faction chairman, Knesset member Ariel Atias, and the deposed party chairman, Knesset member Eli Yishai. Both Yishai and Atias were senior cabinet members in Netanyahu’s government until a few months ago. Now they are Knesset members of a quarrelsome opposition party, the political representatives of a movement which just lost its founder and leader, and is now searching for its way.
Two surprising things have been discovered about Deri over the past month. The first is his crass and obsessive quest for respect and honor. The second, which is even more surprising, is that he is apparently unable to withstand the temptation of the sin of arrogance, which was the main reason he fell from grace in the first iteration of his political career. This is a critical time for Deri. He is trying to reaffirm his leadership as Shas sets off on a new era. But Deri is succumbing to his two main weaknesses and repeating the same mistakes of his past.
The photo that he wanted to hang in the party’s conference room is just one of many examples of Deri’s effort to use external factors to transform himself into Shas’s new political and spiritual leader. Before that, he organized a distasteful display of strength at the memorial service marking a week since the passing of Yosef. Even then it looked as if the chairman, who returned to the party after 13 years of exile, spent too much time branding himself as the only boss in Shas.
The first to pay the price was Yishai. It will take a long time before he recovers from the public humiliation he suffered when, under Deri’s direct order, he was not allowed onstage at that event. This was a crass and unwarranted act, which presented Deri as someone who was so afraid of Yishai that he chose to behave like the last of the great dictators. He certainly lacked the magnanimity to show Yishai the common courtesy of a victor. At the same time, however, the incident also marred the atmosphere within the parliamentary faction. Knesset members who had worked alongside Yishai for the past 13 years had serious reservations about Deri’s attitude toward him. They also thought about themselves and their own standing in the party, which is turning itself around so quickly. Their conclusions were less than heartening.
But those members of the Knesset weren’t the only people stunned by that officious show of strength. So was Yosef’s family. They never expected that a memorial service for their loved one would turn into an episode of This Is Your Life, honoring Deri, as the event was described indignantly by the late rabbi’s family. The feeling among some members of the family was that Deri was only thinking about himself at that memorial evening. By making sure that people praised him, he left a blemish on the event itself. Deri heard this criticism directly from them in Yosef’s home. At the memorial next week to mark 30 days since the rabbi’s passing, the chairman has been asked to keep a low profile. Yosef’s children even cautioned Deri that this time they would be supervising the event themselves.
It is surprising how little Deri has learned from his past mistakes. After spending two years in prison, he swore that he had learned his lesson and admitted that he had transgressed the cardinal sin of pride. But now he is repeating the self-same pattern of behavior that got him into trouble in the first place. Ever since Yosef restored him to the party leadership position, and even more so since Yosef passed away, Deri will not allow anyone within close proximity to him. He simply distanced everyone from the centers of power. He micromanaged the local election campaign, personally deciding who would run on behalf of Shas for each of the many city councils. He raised people up, and he cast them down. He appointed and he deposed. He was the only chef who could mix the brew.
Actually, Deri was convinced that the municipal elections would restore him to his glory days. After Shas’s lukewarm results in the Knesset elections, the chairman claimed Yosef’s decision to have him run the party jointly with Yishai and Atias left him unable to give full expression to his talents as a campaigner. Now, however, with him wielding absolute control of the campaign, he failed in Jerusalem and lost Elad, a city which was controlled by Shas — and he lost it to an Ashkenazi candidate.
So, what does someone who can’t admit his failures actually do in a case like that? He searches for other people to blame. And who does Deri believe is most responsible? Eli Yishai. In an uninhibited appearance on Israeli TV Channel 2’s "Meet the Press" Saturday night, Oct. 26, Deri was asked about the political losses that he suffered recently. He explained the bad results in the recent municipal elections by claiming that Yishai didn’t help him in the campaign. “I reached out to him then, and I reach out to him now. Eli, come with us. Your home is here with us. Enough of all that. It is only hurting Shas.”
The truth is that even if Yishai really wanted to help the election effort, he would not have had a chance. Deri purged him from every possible position of influence. Instead of embracing him and building on his experience, he removed him and humiliated him. As a senior party official described the situation: “It is pathetic that he is accusing Eli Yishai of these failures. It is a new version of his personal J’accuse.”
It is unclear how aware Deri is of his problematic status within the Shas Party. While it is true that Yosef himself determined that Deri would head Shas, the vigor behind that decision is limited. It really depends on how Deri acts within the party. His attempts to humiliate Yishai have rebounded back at him, his search for respect even at the expense of Yosef himself has raised the ire of some of the late rabbi’s family members, and internal criticism due to his failures have all taken their toll on Deri’s status.
This week Deri also had to contend with a poll conducted by the Israeli TV Knesset Channel, which found that Shas would win 13 Knesset seats if it was headed by Yishai, but only 10 seats if it was headed by Deri. The way it looks now, Deri’s antics are actually strengthening Yishai. The party is not anticipating a rosy outcome to his efforts to force a reconciliation with the former party chairman. The meeting that Deri initiated lasted little more than 25 minutes. The rift between them is too deep, too fresh, and the reciprocal lack of trust is far too intense.
Deri may have inherited the party, but he will still have to fight for and earn the position of leader. If the polls continue to favor his rival, Yishai, the man who once thought it would be easy to return to the pinnacle of Israeli politics could find himself in a tough and grueling battle. If he is really to overcome all those difficulties, he will first have to learn from his past mistakes.
Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.