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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's death is political depth charge

    Mourners thronged the streets and rooftops of Jerusalem this week after the death of Rabbi Ovadia (Photo: AP)
    Mourners thronged the streets and rooftops of Jerusalem this week after the death of Rabbi Ovadia (Photo: AP)

    As he did during his lifetime, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who passed away on Monday, will continue to unite the party he served as spiritual leader. For a while, at least.

    The mourning for Rabbi Ovadia will continue within Shas much longer than the seven days of shivah and none of its erstwhile political leaders or rabbinical hopefuls will want to be accused of breaking ranks and desecrating the great man’s memory.

    As it is, while the party continues to languish in opposition, there is nothing to fight about. No jobs, no budget, just dreary parliamentary duties, which none of Shas’s Knesset members ever excelled at.

    While the present coalition holds, Shas has little hope of joining government and, until elections are scheduled, which could be over three years away, the tensions seem likely to simmer mainly under the surface.

    Shas is not a party in any real sense of the world. Founded in 1983 to run initially in the Jerusalem municipal elections to challenge the Ashkenazi hegemony of the Charedi community, under Rabbi Ovadia’s aegis it rapidly grew into a national force. However, it has no membership lists, no executive committee and no mechanism to select a new leader. The Council of Torah Sages which officially directed the party was a showcase of elderly rabbis. It was seldom convened, and only then to echo the decisions of its president, Rabbi Ovadia.

    Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
    Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

    The current chairman, Aryeh Deri, returned to the post earlier this year after a long exile which followed his conviction and imprisonment for bribe-taking. His reappointment reflected a realignment of the influential figures who surrounded the rabbi during his last days.

    The youngest son, Moshe Yosef, who lived with his father for two decades following the death of the Rabbi’s wife, Margalit, was once the main supporter of former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, appointed chairman in 2000 following Mr Deri’s conviction in a move that almost split Shas. In recent years, as the rabbi’s health failed, Yosef junior and other family members looked to the charismatic former chairman to keep the party’s fortunes alive. But Mr Deri is not a rabbi himself and none of the members of Council of Torah Sages or any other Sephardi rabbis close to the party have the stature to back him as leader against all challengers.

    Mr Yishai is still around, and at least half of Shas’s MKs are closer to him than Mr Deri and prefer his more collegial style of leadership. Mr Yishai is also said to enjoy the support of former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, until not long ago seen by many as Rabbi Ovadia’s rabbinical successor — until they fell out over the elections of Rabbi Amar’s successor.

    A Yishai-Amar alliance could potentially split the party down the middle, with rabbis and politicians ranged on either side, competing for the votes of traditional Sephardi voters.

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