Knesset member Eli Yishai, a prominent member of Shas for the past 30 years, is expected to resign from the ultra-Orthodox party and form a new political faction within the coming weeks. The move comes after a scheduled reconciliation meeting between him and current Shas chairman Aryeh Deri was canceled at the behest of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party’s rabbinic council.
“Deri has tied Yishai’s hands and feet and plastered a bandage across his mouth,” an associate of Yishai’s was quoted by Ynet as saying Sunday. “It’s impossible to work like this.”
The decision to cancel the meeting was reportedly ordered by Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a staunch Deri supporter and the head of the party’s panel of spiritual advisers known as the Council of Torah Sages, who also instructed Shas members to refrain from discussing Yishai’s departure in the media and during interviews, according to the Walla news site.
Relations between Deri and Yishai, who himself headed the party for nearly 14 years, have soured considerably after last year’s death of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef. The two foes have quarreled repeatedly over Yishai’s role in the party, with Deri accusing Yishai of undermining him in a bid to reclaim the chairmanship.
Hostilities came to a head 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 Hashabat reported.
Yishai first rose to the chairmanship of Shas when Deri began serving out a prison sentence for embezzlement.
On Friday, Yishai met with leading Lithuanian Rabbi Aharon Shteinman and received his blessing to leave the Shas party, according to reports in Hebrew media. Though Shteinman is an Ashkenazi rabbi, he is considered a great spiritual leader by members of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Jews as well.
Pundits have speculated in recent days that Yishai could join with Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) — who is also locked in an internal struggle with his party leader, Naftali Bennett, and may be on the verge of splitting — to form a new party ahead of the March 2015 elections.
Ariel’s Tekumah faction currently holds four of the 12 Jewish Home Knesset seats. Last week, the Tekumah MKs within the Jewish Home party — Ariel, Orit Strock, Eli Ben Dahan, and Zvulun Kalfa — called an emergency session and threatened to run as a separate party in the future elections. The session was later followed by a heated meeting where Tekumah members showed up late to a Jewish Home conference and accused Bennett of selling out the values of the party in order to broaden his political base.
A poll published Wednesday by Maariv and conducted by the Panels research group predicted that under Deri’s leadership Shas would win seven Knesset seats in the upcoming election, as opposed to nine under Yishai’s leadership.
The poll also found that if the tensions between the two leads to a split in the party, 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.