"There's a story in the Gemara," says Aryeh Deri, "about Honi HaMa'agel, who fell asleep for 70 years. When he woke, he felt lost and unable to understand the world he could see."
Deri, too, feels like Honi HaMa'agel from time to time – in the political arena, in his bureau and also in the Shas street. He looks in amazement at the world he left some 15 years ago, and he struggles to keep up with the pace. "It's politics of a completely different kind, the media's different, it's a completely different generation," he says. "I don’t understand the language my aides speak, that my children speak. I sit with talented aides and I don’t understand their language. In politics, everything's become personal; regrettably, it's all about egos. There are numerous movements without an idea and that are based on a single individual – one day like this, and one day like that."
When Deri went to jail 15 years ago, he was escorted to Ma'asiyahu Prison by thousands of supporters who responded to campaigns on his behalf in the streets of Jerusalem. Today, he carries a cellphone – a kosher one, without Internet access or applications – with a call-screening code, and he isn't a member of any WhatsApp group.
We meet at the Shas offices in Jerusalem's hi-tech area, Har Hotzvim. The walls around us are a museum of sorts dedicated to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. It's been a year now since the passing of the movement's founder and undisputed leader, and his death reignited, for the umpteenth time, the internal conflict in Shas. Deri's headache can be summed up in two short words – Eli Yishai, the man who stepped into Deri's shoes in the late 1990s, was removed from them by Rabbi Yosef some 13 years later, and has since been behaving like an exiled leader. Anonymous Yishai supporters sometimes send out emails to the press with attacks on Deri, accusing him of "destroying the party." Yishai hardly even bothers now to distance himself from them.
Do you feel stable in your position?
"Yes, and it's not being put to the test. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in his final days, and the Council of Torah Sages appointed me as Shas chairman, and the Council today gives me its complete and full backing."
So complete is the support that Deri allows himself to declare that "today, too, if the Council of Torah Sages was to come along and say to me that there is someone more worthy than me, I would quit my position right there and then."
If that's the case, would you agree to a secret ballot among the Shas Knesset members to choose the chairman they want – you versus Eli Yishai?
"Excuse me, let's make things clear once and for all: Every party has its game rules. Even Yair Lapid's party, which is an absolute dictatorship, has a constitution. You can't manage a movement without game rules. Shas has a single anchor – the Council of Torah Sages. That's our party convention and central committee. That's the way it was for 30 years, and that's how Rabbi Yosef managed everything. God help us if Shas were to start with secret or open ballots within the faction. It would be the end of Shas."
During the course of Operation Protective Edge, Yishai couldn't hold back and released a number of press statements in the name of the party. Deri, who was abroad at the time, was furious, and broke character by sending Yishai a text message instructing him not to give any interviews on behalf of Shas.
"I know he's going through a rough period," says Deri, who usually doesn't say much about his rivalry with Yishai. "I understand, I try to take it into consideration… But I have made it clear, and I will do so again when the Knesset reopens – I won't stand for a situation in which there are two movements within Shas. I won't allow that to happen. If there's anyone in Shas who is thinking about splitting the party or acting independently, I call on him to do so now.
"The Council of Torah Sages and I will never allow such a mood in Shas. I understand it's hard for Eli Yishai; he was chairman of the party for 13 years … I understand him; it's not easy, and I hope that it will heal with time… I plan to speak with him about it after the holidays. He has a very respectable place; he was chairman of the movement and he's a senior member – but he, too, knows that there's no room for two chairmen."
Far from the coalition
When it comes to dealing with the political pundits of today, Deri also feels a little like Honi HaMa'agel. He reads almost every weekend about his longing to return to the government, and his frequent meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do little to dismiss such notions. But, if we're to believe Deri, he is very far from joining the "Haredi hating" coalition, as he puts it. In all likelihood, a political fox like Deri will be ready to explain his return to his "natural partners" when the day comes; for now, however, he doesn't hold back in his criticism of any of the country's leaders.
"One gets the sense that Israel is lacking a leader and leadership," he says. "There's no one in charge. Every minister does whatever he wants. Look at what happened with the government during the war, with ministers holding press conferences, giving briefings, leaking from the cabinet – real anarchy. The election campaign started during the course of Protective Edge.
"Our soldiers were getting killed in Gaza and they (the ministers) conducted election campaigns. They used daily surveys to measure which populist statements would win them more seats. Look at what's happening with the prime minister; he's incapable of speaking to his ministers. He doesn't outline policy for them. Everyone does whatever they please. We have a prime minister who is incapable, and I don’t even want to go into details."
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Netanyahu and Lapid finally came to an agreement on the 2015 budget – a terrible budget for which we will pay dearly, Deri says.
"I've been through many state budgets," the Shas leader continues. "I can't ever recall such behavior. There's the governor of the Bank of Israel who no one even considers; and there's the prime minister and finance minister who submitted a budget that heralds political survival. That's the only consideration in this state budget. The whole world, and Netanyahu included, is against the zero-VAT law. All the economists in the world oppose zero VAT. The chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee searched high and low for an economist who would express support for the plan and no one turned up. Is Yair Lapid the only smart one among us? The entire budget is a game; it's all about political survival."
What do you mean?
"The prime minister was convinced that Lapid wanted elections. Lapid was convinced that the Netanyahu wanted elections. They didn't believe one another. Lapid realized in the end that elections wouldn't serve his interests, and Netanyahu realized that he has no other government – so they came to an agreement on the budget on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This budget is like the story of the grandmother who baked a cake and divided it up among everyone. And nothing remained for whom? The poor and the weak."
Deri can't understand either why Lapid's sectorial demands are legitimate whereas similar demands from Shas are labeled political blackmail.
"I've got a bone to pick with you, the media," Deri says. "I see a headline from Lapid that if the zero-VAT law isn't passed, the government will crumble. I try to imagine what they'd say about the ultra-Orthodox in similar circumstances. Whenever we had arguments and we took a firm stand, the headlines immediately attacked Shas and accused us of political blackmail… Not a month goes by without Yair Lapid threatening and no one labels him an extortionist. Ofer Shelach threatened all the time – and no one called him an extortionist… Why don't I read in the press about Lapid's political blackmailing? Why isn't it called political blackmail when he does it?"
Has the prime minister failed?
With all due respect, the prime minister bears responsibility for whatever transpires in the government. You can't always lay the blame on (Naftali) Bennett, on (Avigdor) Lieberman or on Lapid – and you're just fine. Clearly Netanyahu has also failed. This entire government has been an outright failure."
Is this an anti-Haredi government?
Yes, unequivocally so. From the moment this government was formed, it's been united by a single purpose – to harm the ultra-Orthodox public as much as possible, the Torah-studying public and the weaker sectors of the population."
The talk is that you are really longing to join the government.
Deri breaks into laughter. "There isn't a political party around that doesn't want to be in the government," he says. "Longing? Of course I am longing – not for the Volvo, or the Skoda or God knows whatever car they give these days. Believe me, the Ford Mondeo I have today is just fine. I don't need a thing… But I can't be of influence in this government. Besides, I want to remind you that there's a veto on the ultra-Orthodox joining the government. My friend, Yvet (Avigdor) Lieberman, imposed a veto on us. The new Lieberman-Lapid brotherhood pact imposed a veto on us. These are pacts of political survival – nothing more."
And many believe that when you are offered to join the government, you will.
"I will refuse to serve as a minister in this government. I will not join a government with a budget like that, that supports the Conversion Law, that does harm to the weaker sectors… As soon as the Knesset's winter session begins, I will do everything to topple this government and go to elections. There won't be talks about joining the government."
Will you try to find an alternative candidate for prime minister?
"Look, politics isn’t a matter of revenge. It's not a members club. First and foremost, you need to look out for your public. Our objective is to topple the government and go to elections. This time we are free of any obligations of any kinds towards Netanyahu and the Likud."
They're your natural partners.
"Natural partners? They threw us out of town, expelled us, told us we aren't wanted, offended us. Is that what natural partners do? Lapid, Bennett, Lieberman and (Tzipi) Livni taught us a lesson… They taught us how everyone looks out for themselves, without even a glance to the left or the right."
Former Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yachimovich refused to work with Deri due to his criminal conviction; but ever since MK Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog's election as Labor chairman, he and Deri have formed a tight bond – so much so that in March this year, Deri went as far as recommending Herzog for the position of Israel's next prime minister.
"Buji is an honest guy, a team man, very talented and diligent," Deri says. "I see no reason why he can't replace Netanyahu and become prime minister. But it's not up to me. He needs to win seats and consolidate a bloc around him."
During the course of Operation Protective Edge, Deri stood firmly behind Netanyahu and his government. But after 50 days of war, Deri sounds disappointed, not to say surprised even – and now that the operation is over, he doesn't pull his punches.
"There's no doubt that 50 days of war and 70 fatalities and billions spent is no simple matter," he says. "It's not the outcome I expected. For years, we invested he sums of money in the army; we were told that the army can handle two-three fronts simultaneously, and in the end we were put to the test against a very small entity, without an army, without airplanes; we confronted primitive rockets made from tin and primitive tunnels – and it disappoints me.
"With all due respect, I didn't see much sophistication, I didn’t see many operations; it should have been a lot shorter. And we will still be made to pay a heavy political price in the world for the operation. It's only just started."
When it comes to matters of politics, Deri is viewed in the ultra-Orthodox sector as a dove – perhaps under the influence of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who preferred peace to the idea of a Greater Israel. Deri believes Israel is in for a tough time on the political front.
"We are in a very tough position in the world. I don't see any black-and-white here," he says. "Time isn't on our side and we are living in a political vacuum and there's a need to show some hope or some direction. We have an opportunity for widespread cooperation with the moderate Arab world, like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. To this end, we need to push the Palestinian issue hard and bring everyone into it. But I still think that there's no chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinian at this point in time without first solving the problem of Hamas.
"We should have taken the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen and given them the economic and political strength to be the sovereign power in Gaza. Now, it's a little too late, and certainly after Abu Mazen's speech of incitement and falsehoods at the UN. He surprised me. I didn’t think he'd go that far. I very much hope he doesn't believe what he says, because he acted very differently during the war. As a Jew, as an Israeli, I was very offended. To accuse of committing genocide? Abu Mazen knows the truth. He knows what kind of lowlife murderers we were up against."