Can an ex-convict be Jerusalem's mayor?

Aryeh Deri, jailed for bribery in 2000, tries for a comeback in the Jerusalem mayoral contest as Israel reels from several high-profile political scandals.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Comeback? Aryeh Deri, jailed for bribery in 2000, wants to run in November's Jerusalem mayor race.
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One of Israel's most charismatic and controversial political figures, who fell from grace when he was jailed in 2000 for bribery, is making a comeback that is quickly sowing controversy.

Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said Wednesday he would run for mayor of Jerusalem, a key office that was held by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert through much of the 1990s.

But one barrier stands in Mr. Deri's way. As an official who was convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude," he is banned from running for office for seven years, and that period is not up until next July. But Deri's lawyers are presenting legal opinions to the Central Elections Committee to support shortening that period. And Shimon Peres, as president, can also pardon Deri.

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"I weighed it out and consulted with my rabbis and with attorneys. I have made the decision to run," Deri told Israel's Army Radio in an interview.

But Deri's announcement is sending ripples through many levels of the political and judicial system. It also comes at a time when Israelis have become increasingly wary of leaders holding high office, and concerned about candidates' moral character. Mr. Olmert, who will leave office this month when his Kadima Party picks a new leader, is likely to face criminal prosecution for charges of fraud and bribery, Israeli police officials said this week. A slew of other government officials are under investigation, and Israel's last president, Moshe Katsav, is expected to be indicted on charges of rape in the coming weeks.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which has been trying to fight high-level corruption since its founding 18 years ago, moved briskly to try to block Deri's return by proposing legislation in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to lengthen the ban on former officials convicted of crimes of moral turpitude. Instead of being prevented from holding office for seven years, they want to see the period extended to 15.

"We're surprised this is even coming up, and we oppose the legal steps it would take to allow him to run," says Michael Partem, vice chairman of the movement.

Similar to the United States, Israel also shows a tendency toward a "permanent political class" that should be reined in, says Mr. Partem.

"Politicians tend to get involved and stay there for life," he says, "In Israel we tend to recycle people. Politics is in their blood and it becomes their profession."

He says that the seven-year limit, which Deri is trying to overcome – helped in part by the fact that he got his sentence shorted to 22 months for good behavior – was not nearly enough.

"To limit someone to seven years after committing serious public crimes is abhorrent to us," Partem says. "Even if he's truly sorry for his crimes, he's free to live his life as he sees fit, but it doesn't make sense that we put someone like that in charge of the public purse."

At the time of his conviction, Deri maintained his innocence and supporters rushed to his defense, painting him as a victim of the Ashkenazi, or European, establishment. Similarly, analysts here say that if Deri isn't allowed to run, he may use the issue to say that he is continuing to be discriminated against because of his ethnic background. Born in Morocco, he is championed as an underdog by many Jews of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, descent.

But the race to run the holy city is still more complicated. Deri's success in the past came in part because when he was a rising political wunderkind in the early 1990s, his Shas Party maintained a moderate platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in contrast to most other Orthodox parties. Deri was in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, who reached a historic peace deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization 15 years ago this Saturday.

As such, some secular and liberal voters could support Deri, while right-wingers and nationalists who fear Jerusalem will be divided into two capitals – one Israel and one Palestinian – have already begun to portray him as a "leftist in a kippah" (head covering) for having supported the 1993 Oslo Accords.

"He has the Sephardi vote, and he also knows to talk to the secular people: that's his strength," says Shmuel Sandler, an expert on Israeli politics at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. "But I think the Israeli public is sick and tired of corruption and he has to remember that."

Deri, alongside Olmert, is one of many politicians who is trying to portray his legal battles as a sign of a slanted judicial and law enforcement system that is "out to get" certain key officials. The phenomenon, says Partem, shows a trend of "people who are out to intimidate the legal forces – including the courts and the police – for doing their job." One of Israel's most charismatic and controversial political figures, who fell from grace when he was jailed in 2000 for bribery, is making a comeback that is quickly sowing controversy.

Aryeh Deri, the former leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said Wednesday he would run for mayor of Jerusalem, a key office that was held by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert through much of the 1990s.

But one barrier stands in Mr. Deri's way. As an official who was convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude," he is banned from running for office for seven years, and that period is not up until next July. But Deri's lawyers are presenting legal opinions to the Central Elections Committee to support shortening that period. And Shimon Peres, as president, can also pardon Deri.

"I weighed it out and consulted with my rabbis and with attorneys. I have made the decision to run," Deri told Israel's Army Radio in an interview.

But Deri's announcement is sending ripples through many levels of the political and judicial system. It also comes at a time when Israelis have become increasingly wary of leaders holding high office, and concerned about candidates' moral character. Mr. Olmert, who will leave office this month when his Kadima Party picks a new leader, is likely to face criminal prosecution for charges of fraud and bribery, Israeli police officials said this week. A slew of other government officials are under investigation, and Israel's last president, Moshe Katsav, is expected to be indicted on charges of rape in the coming weeks.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which has been trying to fight high-level corruption since its founding 18 years ago, moved briskly to try to block Deri's return by proposing legislation in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to lengthen the ban on former officials convicted of crimes of moral turpitude. Instead of being prevented from holding office for seven years, they want to see the period extended to 15.

"We're surprised this is even coming up, and we oppose the legal steps it would take to allow him to run," says Michael Partem, vice chairman of the movement.

Similar to the United States, Israel also shows a tendency toward a "permanent political class" that should be reined in, says Mr. Partem.

"Politicians tend to get involved and stay there for life," he says, "In Israel we tend to recycle people. Politics is in their blood and it becomes their profession."

He says that the seven-year limit was not nearly enough.

"To limit someone to seven years after committing serious public crimes is abhorrent to us," Partem says. "Even if he's truly sorry for his crimes, he's free to live his life as he sees fit, but it doesn't make sense that we put someone like that in charge of the public purse."

At the time of his conviction, Deri maintained his innocence and supporters rushed to his defense, painting him as a victim of the Ashkenazi, or European, establishment. Similarly, analysts here say that if Deri isn't allowed to run, he may use the issue to say that he is continuing to be discriminated against because of his ethnic background. Born in Morocco, he is championed as an underdog by many Jews of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, descent.

But the race to run the holy city is still more complicated. Deri's success in the past came in part because when he was a rising political wunderkind in the early 1990s, his Shas Party maintained a moderate platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in contrast to most other Orthodox parties. Deri was in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, who reached a historic peace deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization 15 years ago this Saturday.

As such, some secular and liberal voters could support Deri, while right-wingers and nationalists who fear Jerusalem will be divided into two capitals – one Israel and one Palestinian – have already begun to portray him as a "leftist in a kippah" (head covering) for having supported the 1993 Oslo Accords.

"He has the Sephardi vote, and he also knows to talk to the secular people: that's his strength," says Shmuel Sandler, an expert on Israeli politics at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. "But I think the Israeli public is sick and tired of corruption and he has to remember that."

Deri, alongside Olmert, is one of many politicians who is trying to portray his legal battles as a sign of a slanted judicial and law enforcement system that is "out to get" certain key officials. The phenomenon, says Partem, shows a trend of "people who are out to intimidate the legal forces – including the courts and the police – for doing their job."

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