The surprise resignation of Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri Tuesday evening came as Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak was on the verge of assembling a minority government after hitting a stone wall in his attempt to form a broad based coalition.
Deri’s action was seen as clearing the way for negotiations with the ultra-Orthodox Shas to enter the coalition. It would thus allow Barak to form a government as early as next week with at least 70 Knesset members — nine more than a majority in the 120-member Knesset. Shas, with 17 Knesset members, is Israel’s third largest party behind Labor’s One Israel bloc of 26 seats and Likud’s 19.
Both Barak and an expected coalition partner, Meretz, had refused to consider including Shas in the coalition as long as Deri remained party leader.
Deri was convicted in April of bribe taking, fraud and breach of the public trust, and was sentenced to four years in prison. A Jerusalem court stayed the sentence pending appeal to the High Court of Justice.
After Deri’s sudden announcement to a stunned group of 10,000 supporters in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu Stadium, Barak suspended all coalition negotiations for 24 hours to assess the situation. During that time, Shas’ Council of Torah Sages was scheduled to review Deri’s decision and accept it.
Sitting next to Deri when he spoke was the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. A leading member of the council, the rabbi is said to have been quietly urging Deri to step aside for the good of the party and the country. Nevertheless, Deri’s announcement caught everyone by surprise.
Deputy Health Minister Shlomo Benizri said the party was in “shock, none of us expected this.”
In a letter of resignation, Deri explained that he had hoped to “help achieve national appeasement and greater unity” when he resigned his Knesset seat a day after the May 17 election that swept Barak to a landslide victory over incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu. But he said he later consulted “all rabbis” and decided to forego all party responsibilities in order not to be “even a symbolic impediment” toward national reconciliation, a code term for Shas’ joining the government.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a member of the Meimad Party and a Knesset candidate on the One Israel ticket, said Deri’s action was Barak’s “biggest victory since the election [because] Deri had said publicly that he was not going to resign.”
Until that moment, said the rabbi, Barak’s efforts to build a coalition government “had not looked so good. There were a lot of complications.”
Chief among the issues was Likud’s refusal to join the coalition without the status of an equal partner, which would offer the party a key role in the peace process. That is something Barak was not prepared to do, saying he had been elected to steer Israel in a different direction.
But with Shas in the coalition, Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, said he believed it is harder for Likud to remain on the sidelines.
“For a party like Likud, which suffered tremendous losses in the election [it lost three Knesset seats] to be shut out of a broad government could isolate it even further,” he said. “With a narrow government, where Likud could lead the opposition, there would have been an incentive to stay out. But the more parties that are in the coalition, the harder it is to stay out. It’s like a rolling ball process. The National Religious Party now has to be in, and that means United Torah Judaism comes in — the only ones out are [essentially] the Arab parties, and that’s not good company for Likud.”
Crucial decisions are expected to made by the new government regarding Israel’s future, including the country’s borders and the future of Jerusalem.
Steinberg pointed out that Barak still has hurdles because Meretz, the party most aligned with the liberal One Israel bloc, is refusing to sit in a government with Shas until it verifies that Deri is really out.
Said Ran Cohen, a Meretz member of the Knesset: “Our basic line is that it must be confirmed that Deri isn’t running Shas in any way at all.”
Shas leaders had also said that if they joined the government, they wanted to retain control of the Interior Ministry, something Barak has flatly ruled out. And both the NRP and Meretz want the ministry.
The inclusion of Shas in the government would create the largest governing coalition since the Labor-Likud unity government that ended in 1992. It would also likely mean that Barak would seek legislation allowing him to expand the number of ministers from 18 to perhaps 24 in order to accommodate the increased demand for portfolios. But because there are only a select number of plum ministries, Barak is certain to rankle some parties with his selections.
Much of the clamor for ministerial positions comes from within the Labor Party itself, where such people as former ministers Yossi Beilin and Haim Ramon are looking for prominent roles in the new government.
Once the new government is formed, the stalled peace talks will resume, Barak promised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a phone call Monday. Barak has said that he planned to conduct peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon at the same time.
But Rabbi Gilad speculated that he would concentrate on the one that has the quickest chances of success, or perhaps even hold secret talks with Syria while maintaining a higher profile with the Palestinian talks.
Part of those talks will address Jewish settlements, where an estimated 200,000 Jews live in Gaza and the West Bank. Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the settlers, said that although 77 percent of them voted for Netanyahu, there is “not a feeling of despair but of disappointment and uncertainty about which direction Mr. Barak will take.” She said he has spoken of removing social welfare benefits from the settlers, such as salary incentives to attract new teachers and lower interest rates for loans.
Tayar, in Manhattan this week to meet supporters “and tell them we are more determined than ever” to stay in the settlements, added that the settlers expected to meet with Barak next week.
“He has reiterated the importance of unity, but unity is not taking one segment of the population and separating it from the rest,” she said.