Former MK, Interior Minister and convicted prisoner Rabbi Aryeh Deri said on Monday that he intends to head a new party in the coming elections.
Speaking on the investigative news program "Uvdah" ("Fact") to senior correspondent Ben Shani, Deri said, "In the next elections, with God's help, I will head a movement, period." Asked by Shani about voters' concerns over electing someone who had served time in prison for crimes involving moral turpitude, Deri replied, "I do not have to deal with that. You will have to deal with that. If you want to vote [for me], you can do so. If you don't want to vote [for me], you don't have to. That's all."
Deri led the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party until 1993, when corruption charges from Israel's Supreme Court forced him to resign from the cabinet. In 1999, he was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of taking $155,000 in bribes during his stint as interior minister. He was released from Maasiyahu Prison in 2002 after only 22 months on account of good behavior.
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When asked if what he had learned from his past mistakes, Deri said, "I didn't have to say I was mistaken. This is not so simple. You can perceive authority in a negative way. You have assistants, secretaries, chauffeurs and bodyguards. Thank God, I have never ever taken even one cent that didn't belong to me. Today, I have no assistants, no secretaries and no chauffeurs. Without belittling anyone, when I look at what is being publicized, I think my vacations in London were like public service there."
Deri also said, "I abided by the court's ruling, but the court was wrong. It's not that I am not willing to admit, but rather that I simply can't admit."
Right-wing parties appear most concerned about Deri's return to politics because, according to some polls, Deri's new, as-yet-unnamed political party could win five to seven seats in the Knesset and lead to the creation of a Kadima-led, center-left coalition. MKs from the center-right bloc currently hold 65 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Right-wing politicians are also concerned that Deri and Kadima Council head Haim Ramon maintain close, friendly ties.
“I am returning to public political life in the next election, God willing,” Deri said at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem in June 2011. “In Israel, you can't contribute if you don’t have political power, which is why in the next election I will lead a new movement with political power.” After his announcement was met with applause, Deri added, “I can't yet say in what framework, but I made the decision over the last year, and the main reason behind it is that I feel that with the experience I have accumulated and my God-given gifts, I can make a contribution and give the citizens of Israel hope, citizens who despite their vast differences can still live together. I know how to navigate between people with differences of opinion.”
In that same speech, Deri also referred to Shas, the party he once led to 17 seats in the Knesset. “The Sephardi public that I grew up with felt extremely underprivileged,” Deri said. “We had to build from the bottom up, so that the Sephardi community could have spiritual and political leadership, and Shas grew to where it is today. I am returning to unite the nation in preparation for difficult decisions that lie ahead.”
Speaking of the current political situation, Deri said, “My worst nightmare is a war. I have never voted in the cabinet in favor of military action, and therefore I could never be prime minister, nor would I want to be. I am not driven by vengeance and ambition. I simply want to feel that I have fulfilled my mission."
Livni set to announce primaries
Meanwhile, yielding to increasing pressure to set a date for Kadima primaries, Opposition leader Tzipi Livni informed party members on Monday that she would announce a date for primaries within the next two weeks. Party members believe the event will take place at the end of April.
Kadima has been suffering a steady decline in the polls. The erosion of support, coupled with the arrest of Kadima treasurer Itzik Hadad in October, led a growing number of Livni's colleagues to call for a leadership contest to be held in the next few months rather than shortly before the 2013 general elections.
The centrist Kadima party won the most Knesset seats in the 2009 elections (28) but failed to form a governing coalition. It took a beating from the social justice movement last summer, which brought hundreds of thousands of citizens into streets and city squares in protest of the high cost of living in Israel. Livni also took a barrage of criticism for issuing statements that retroactively condemned the deal to release abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Because she waited until after the deal had gone through to voice her opinion, some called her a coward.
Several Kadima MKs have indicated they would support a challenge to Livni, and hundreds of Kadima activists and party officials signed a petition to urge Livni to invoke the necessary provision in the Kadima constitution to allow the primary process to go forward. According to party rules, it is practically impossible to call early primaries without the party leader's approval.
Kalman Gayer, Kadima's polling affairs adviser who was present at the party conference on Monday when Livni made the announcement, said that Kadima would win only 20 to 22 seats in the Knesset if elections were to be held today. The numbers did not take into account the possibility of a new party headed by television talk show host Yair Lapid, which may steal additional votes from Kadima.
According to Gayer, Labor "stole" four mandates from Kadima as a result of the social protests that swept through the country last summer, and with two additional mandates taken away by Meretz, Kadima now enjoys only 16 to 18 mandates. Gayer said the Left opposition bloc, without the Arab parties, now stood at 44 or 45 mandates.
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