Disgraced political prodigy rides back

Arieh Deri is greeted by supporters after his release from jail in 2002

Arieh Deri is greeted by supporters after his release from jail in 2002

After almost a decade of enforced absence, one of the brightest stars of Israel’s political scene is set to make his comeback.

Arieh Deri, the Moroccan-born maverick, was appointed Interior Minister before the age of 30 and transformed Shas from a marginal religious party into a major parliamentary force. But in 1999 he was convicted of fraud and bribe-taking and jailed for two years.

He will make his return to public life on July 15, seven years after leaving prison.

Mr Deri has made it clear that he intends to resume his political career. He tried eight months ago to run for Jerusalem mayor but the Supreme Court ruled that he would have to wait. Now his mandatory cooling-off period is over and the Knesset is buzzing with rumours of his plans.

The most natural course would be a return to the party that he helped found and later led to unprecedented electoral victories.

But Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who forced Mr Deri to resign after his conviction, despite the support of tens of thousands of Shas voters, has made it clear that current chairman, Eli Yishai, still has his full backing.

That would leave Mr Deri in an honorary advisory role or as one of the party’s junior ministers. But most Shas insiders believe that he would reject either option and fear that his presence would destabilise the party.

Another possibility supported by the Deri camp in the past was the foundation of a new party, headed by the charismatic leader, appealing to working-class Sephardi voters.

But general elections took place only four months ago and Mr Deri will not be prepared to wait until the next time Israelis go to vote.

One of the more intriguing scenarios being talked about in the Knesset is his appointment as the next foreign minister. Mr Deri is very close to Yisrael Beiteinu leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is under police investigation for numerous counts of money-laundering. Sources within the Justice Ministry are insisting that formal charges are weeks away and that he will have no choice but to resign. Since Mr Lieberman does not want to promote a potential rival within his party, passing on the ministry to his old friend would be a convenient arrangement.

Further stoking these rumours is the fact that Mr Deri has recently been taking crash courses in English and brushing up on his French.

While such an eventuality has been officially denied, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would welcome his old confidant back into the fold as a senior minister or advisor to bring some much needed experience to his cabinet.

    Last updated: 4:34pm, July 2 2009