Veteran Shas MK Eli Yishai formally unveiled his new party, Ha’am Itanu (The Nation Is With Us), on Monday evening, projecting that the list would receive 10 seats in the March 2015 elections.
Activists reportedly affiliated with the Shas party arrived at the Jerusalem hotel where Yishai made his announcement and confronted him, chanting, “Traitor!” The activists broke into the hall and grabbed the portrait of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late Shas spiritual leader, placed near the podium. During the scuffle, Yishai’s backers briefly clashed with the activists. They were eventually escorted from the room by security guards. Shas chairman Aryeh Deri later condemned the incident.
During his press conference, Yishai said his decision to leave the Shas party after 30 years “was not easy.” He said his party would attempt to bridge the divide between the various communities in Israel, and pledged to continue the legacy of Yosef, the deceased Shas spiritual leader.
“The nation is with us because the nation wants unity, wants to finally break down the barriers between the religious and secular, between Ashkenazi and Sephardi [Jews],” Yishai said. “The nation is with us because the nation wants social justice and concern for the poor, to the underprivileged, the periphery and development towns.”
He added: “God willing, we will be the surprise of the election and will receive at least 10 seats.”
A statement from the Shas party said it “regrets” Yishai’s decision to “abandon” the Shas party and legacy of Yosef. The party accused Yishai of acting out of “personal ambition and impure motives,” Channel 2 reported.
In a separate statement, Deri denied that the activists who entered the press conference were affiliated with his party.
“I strongly condemn the violence at the Ramada hotel tonight in Jerusalem. This behavior has nothing to do with the Shas movement and does not represent it,” Deri said.
Yishai registered with election authorities to run under a new party on Sunday, solidifying his split from the ultra-Orthodox party he once led.
The independent list was initially named “Maran,” a reference to the honorific used to address Yosef.
Yishai’s move followed days of speculation that the longtime Shas member would join ranks with Housing Minister Uri Ariel and form a new party.
It remains unclear whether Ariel will team up with Yishai. The Jewish Home Knesset member was set to meet with party head Naftali Bennett on Sunday evening, in what some believed was a last effort on Bennett’s part to convince Ariel — the head of the Tekumah faction in Jewish Home — to remain in the unified party.
Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun announced Sunday that he would be joining Yishai’s new faction.
Yishai led Shas for 14 years, but found himself sidelined by the return of Deri — who had been jailed on graft charges — to the party in 2011.
Relations between Deri, who currently heads Shas, and Yishai soured considerably after last year’s death of Yosef.
The two quarreled repeatedly over Yishai’s role in the party, with Deri accusing Yishai of undermining him in a bid to reclaim the chairmanship.
A scheduled reconciliation meeting between Yishai and Deri over the weekend was canceled at the last-minute behest of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party’s rabbinic council.
Hostilities came to a head last Wednesday during a meeting with the Council of Torah Sages, where Yishai was presented with a list of conditions that Deri demanded be met before the two could reconcile. The demands included that Yishai draft a letter of resignation that could be used at any time if the former chairman “acted against the interests of the party,” the website Kikar Hashabbat reported.
“Deri has tied Yishai’s hands and feet and plastered a bandage across his mouth,” an associate of Yishai was quoted by Ynet as saying Sunday. “It’s impossible to work like this.”
In a press conference on Sunday evening, Deri denied the charges, saying that he had offered Yishai the No. 2 slot on the party list, and a ministerial post should the party join the coalition.
On Friday, Yishai met with leading Lithuanian Rabbi Aharon Shteinman and received his blessing to leave the Shas party, according to reports in the Hebrew media. Though Shteinman is an Ashkenazi rabbi, he is considered a great spiritual leader by members of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Jews as well.
A poll published Wednesday by Maariv, and conducted by the Panels research group, predicted that Deri’s faction would win four seats, while Yishai’s would win five, with both leaders making it over the 3.25-percent electoral threshold.
The poll also found that, under Deri’s leadership, Shas would win seven Knesset seats in the elections, as opposed to nine under Yishai’s leadership.