Op-ed

Aryeh Deri says Israel should listen to the US. So why isn’t the US listening to him?

Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, seems to lead the government’s most moderate faction; US officials should use him to influence Netanyahu

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Knesset Member Aryeh Deri looks at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a vote on the state budget at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Knesset Member Aryeh Deri looks at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a vote on the state budget at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, appears to be emerging as one of the most moderate figures in the war cabinet, where he is an observer. And yet, surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to feature on the radar of the Biden administration, which spends much of its time pushing Israel to moderation.

In an interview published Wednesday, Deri said that Israelis should be grateful to US President Joe Biden, even going so far as to describe him as heaven-sent.

Speaking to his party newspaper Haderech (“The Path”), the former minister, using religious jargon, reminded readers about how rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s founder, asked then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir not to retaliate following the Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Israel in 1991. The main consideration was the White House’s objection to Israel striking back.

Deri was asked about the current American support of Israel and said: “We must not forget that throughout the war, [the US government] has helped us on all levels… It is the Almighty God’s great grace that he sent us the Americans and the British. [If he sent them], they are the emissaries of his holiness. Israel can’t isolate itself from the world and presume it can handle it all by itself.”

“Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a flocking of politicians aspiring to portray their might, to present themselves as strongmen. There is no place for that, and this is not our way, ” Deri said, in apparent reference to the hard-right political partners sitting alongside him in the government, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

This interview was not the first time in recent days in which Shas ministers presented relatively moderate positions. Just two weeks ago, Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, also from Shas, sent an unusual letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he bluntly rejected an attempt by the Prime Minister’s Office to impose additional restrictions on entry permits for Palestinian construction workers.

Arbel’s letter expressed ire at the meddling of Netanyahu and his staff in the issue: “The prime minister’s office seeks to shove decisions down our throat without holding an in-depth discussion and without sufficient understanding of the issue. To the extent that the prime minister seeks to take powers from the interior minister, he is entitled to fire him.”

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel attends a Knesset committee meeting, Jerusalem, April 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas party officials confirmed to Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, that Arbel’s position on the issue was aligned with the rest of the party; the minister didn’t slam the premier without permission from Deri.

Considering Shas is more moderate on several issues than Netanyahu’s Likud, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, why isn’t the Biden administration in direct contact with Deri, who regularly attends war cabinet meetings in his status as observer?

Even though Deri was barred by the High Court of Justice from serving as a minister in the government due to his criminal past, he is a prominent partner in the war cabinet and has Netanyahu’s ear. It is well-known in Israel that Netanyahu listens to him and consults with him regularly. Shas’s voter base is among Netanyahu’s most loyal supporters.

The Biden administration conducts direct dialogue with ministers Yoav Gallant, Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot and Ron Dermer, all members or observers of the war cabinet. Yet, it does not regularly engage members of Shas.

Since the establishment of the sixth Netanyahu government at the end of 2022, Smotrich and Ben Gvir have been effectively boycotted by Washington. The latter, convicted eight times for various felonies including inciting racism and supporting a terror organization, is persona non grata to the Americans. Smotrich went to Washington a year ago, but no official – not even his American counterpart, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen – was willing to meet with him.

The question then arises as to why the Biden administration does not maintain deeper ties with ultra-Orthodox party leaders like Deri, and for that matter with with Yitzhak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni, the leaders of United Torah Judaism,  who represent a large segment of the population.

We contacted the White House to inquire about the nature of the connections between the administration and Deri but did not receive an answer. Shas officials told Zman Yisrael that Deri met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a group setting when the latter attended war cabinet meetings in Israel.

But why didn’t Blinken hold a personal meeting with him?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (bottom left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet in Israel on October 16, 2023. Knesset Member Aryeh Deri is seen on the top left. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Shas officials confirmed that representatives of the Biden administration approached them for direct meetings, but they did not take place. Deri holds regular meetings with the US ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, and one such meeting took place about two weeks ago.

But when senior US government officials – certainly those more senior than Lew – want to understand why the war cabinet is stuck and why there is no progress on the issues of “the day after” in Gaza or on the expansion of the authority granted to the negotiating team for the release of hostages held by Hamas, shouldn’t they try to turn over every stone, and wouldn’t that mean talking to Deri?

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