The head of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri, spoke with supporters for the first time Thursday night since resigning from parliament earlier this week, telling them that he heard their calls for his return.
Sitting in a protest tent erected outside his home in northern Israel, Deri spoke to one of his supporters by telephone, and broadcast the conversation to the crowd by microphone, Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
“Your cries reach all the way to the north,” he said. “I love you, and I promise you one thing, my brothers. I have not forgotten what the Maran [Shas’s late spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef] told me in the hospital before he died. He held my hands, cried, and said to me, ‘Aryeh, I am asking you, promise me two things: To continue to care for my sons, the precious poor, and that heaven and Judaism will be loved even more.”
“This is the message of the rabbi, we will continue together, with the help of God, it doesn’t matter in what form,” he added. “I am together with you.”
Deri submitted his formal resignation from parliament on Tuesday evening, theoretically defying demands from his party’s religious council that he remain at the helm. However, his move had no practical significance since the Knesset has already dissolved ahead of the March 17, 2015, elections, and the question of whether Deri will continue to lead Shas may remain unresolved for several more weeks.
The nine remaining members of the Shas Knesset faction (excluding former chairman Eli Yishai, who recently split from the party) later threatened to follow in Deri’s footsteps. The nine MKs notified the party’s spiritual leadership, the Council of Torah Sages, that if Deri truly leaves, they intend to do so as well.
With the Knesset out of session until after the elections, the resignation game appeared largely symbolic, and it remained unclear whether the MKs intended to resign from the current Knesset only, or whether they were threatening to drop out from the party’s list for the upcoming election as well.
However, the Knesset must at all times have 120 members, and such a mass resignation would necessitate the swearing-in of 10 new Shas MKs — who would hold the positions for the next three months.
The developments, which threaten to cause the party’s collapse, came the day after Deri sent a letter to the Council of Torah Sages telling them he wanted out of politics — after a video was leaked showing the late Ovadia Yosef denouncing Deri and apparently favoring his rival, former chairman Eli Yishai, who recently left Shas and started his own party.
In a speech on Tuesday night, Yishai denied that he was behind the leak of the video material. Speaking at a political gathering in Sderot, he said he had set up his new party to prevent another Oslo-style peace process with the Palestinians and to “protect the Land of Israel” — an apparent dig at the more-dovish Deri.
Sources within Shas indicated that there may be hundreds of hours of as-yet-unseen video showing Yosef speaking on a range of topics, some of which could be used as ammunition in the clash between Deri and Yishai.
The video that was aired on Sunday, which documented a conversation that took place in 2008, set Shas on its heels as the party was already reeling from the defection of Yishai, who started his own party to compete with the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox powerhouse.
Yosef expressed fears over Deri’s possible return to the party after the latter spent two years in prison and several years out of public service following a graft conviction in 1999.
“Thirty, 40 percent will leave [Shas]. Why? Because he was convicted in court. Why take a thief or bribe taker?” Ovadia asked rhetorically.
Deri returned to politics after a 13-year hiatus and was reinstated in 2012 by Yosef as Shas party co-chairman together with Yishai, who headed the ultra-Orthodox party during Deri’s incarceration.
Despite his harsh criticisms, Yosef appointed Deri as sole party chairman in 2013, shortly before his death.
In the tape, though, Yosef was heard clearly putting his weight behind Yishai.
“[Deri] will not listen to me, I know this from experience, he is too independent,” the rabbi told his son in the recording. “Your mother was in tears — is this not evil? I’ve spoken to him several times, and he did not want to listen,” he said.
The long-standing rivalry between Yishai and Deri was reignited after Yosef’s death in 2013. 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.
Tensions came to a head earlier this month as Yishai broke away from Shas and formed a new party, Ha’am Itanu (The Nation Is with Us).
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.