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Israel elections Monday, 17 May, 1999, 21:20 GMT 22:20 UK
Shas: Divided we stand
Arieh Deri's conviction could be the key to Shas's success
By Middle East Correspondent Paul Adams

If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is to win the elections, he will need the support of Israel's small religious parties, and in particular, Shas, a party representing Sephardi Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

Israel Elections Special Report
Shas is the third largest party in the outgoing Knesset, with 10 seats. Polls are predicting that the party even could win a few more this year.

Perversely this is thanks to the trial and conviction of its popular and charismatic leader, Aryeh Deri, who was sentenced to four years in jail last month, for bribery and corruption.

But this is not stopping Mr Deri getting his party's message across.

On a street corner close to Jerusalem's Mahane yehuda market stands a man selling videos. His appearance - black suit an dskullcap - tells you not to expect Jane Fonda's workout or the latest pirated movies from Hollywood.

Meir Cohen, a young Shas party activist, has something far more senational to offer: Aryeh Deri's video.

Getting the message across

"It's a smash hit by any standards," says Mr Cohen, "We've already distributed 200,000 copies. Demand is huge."

Released at the end of last month, Mr Deri's video is a breathtaking attack on Israel's legal system.

Mr Deri and his followers always described his trial as an ethnic witch-hunt, by Israel's Ashkenazi - or European - elite. They claim the trial is designed to thwart the political ambitions of disadvantaged, religious Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

"There's never been such a harsh sentence," intones Mr Deri in the 72-minute video. "So brutal, so cruel, so lacking in humanity."

Brisk trade

Mr Deri was found guilty of bribery and corruption charges dating back to his days in the Interior Ministry. (He was minister from 1988 - when he was just 29 years old - to 1993). He is now appealing to Israel's Supreme Court.

Posters of Mr Netanyahu and Shas leader Ovadia Yosef at Mahane Yehuda market
His conviction was carried live on Israeli radio, something he compares to the trials of Nazi war criminals Adolf Eichman and John Demjanjuk. Most secular Israelis were appalled by the video.

But Shas supporters are standing by their man. At Meir Cohen's stall, trade is brisk. People come to buy the video, but also pause to pay a shekel, a contribution to the cost of three specially handwritten copies of the Torah.

It's a worthy gesture, but a calculated one too. Anyone paying a shekel also fills out a form, complete with contact details, which enables Shas to campaign more effectively.

"This goes into the computer at Shas headquarters," says Mr Cohen. "They make house visits and give [a potential voter] the Shas tape with songs and propaganda. They call him twice before the elections to make sure he doesn't change his mind."

Organised campaign

It is this kind of campaigning, combined with educational and social networks, that has propelled Shas to power.

Hardnosed campaigning has kept Shas in power
It is particularly effective in places like Mahane Yehuda, where the voices are mostly Sephardi and pictures of Shas's spiritual leaders are everywhere.

People here are extremely grateful to the party.

"I got so much money and support from Shas," says one named Yossi, who was standing at a melon stall. "My family got lots of support, without any conditions. That's why I vote Shas and I respect Deri."

Shas expects to pick up seats as a result of the Deri affair. In the party's TV commercials, the leader's benevolent face is rarely off the screen.

And in a system where parties and prime minister are chosen separately, he has left supporters in no doubt about how to cast their votes: Shas and Binyamin Netanyahu.

Unlikely match

The association might seem strange. Binyamin Netanyahu comes from the very Ashkenazi elite Shas supporters so revile.

But when it comes to a choice between Mr Netanyahu and his chief rival, Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, Shas member of parliament Shlomo Ben-Izri says the answer is simple.

"There's no choice. I'm not sure Binyamin Netanyahu is the best prime minister for Israel, but Barak spoke all the time against the Ultra-Orthodox.

"He said we have to serve in the army. He'll stop the budget to the Ultra-Orthodox. So today we have to do only one thing: support Netanyahu," says Mr Ben-Izri.

For 10 years, Shas has grown, turning Arieh Deri into a political kingmaker, with the ear of successive Israeli prime ministers. Some believe Mr Netanyahu's close association with such a disgraced figure may in fact lose him next week's election.

But others say Shas's campaign has been even more damaging.

"All those forces of Ultra-Orthodox, combined with anti-democrats, go together and are more powerful than ever," says Amirama Golan of the daily Ha'aretz newspaper. "This campaign is separating Shas voters from the democratic Israeli state."

Links to more Israel elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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