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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 Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2008

Comeback? Aryeh Deri, jailed for bribery in 2000, wants to run in November's Jerusalem mayor race.

Michael Fattal/EPA

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JERUSALEM

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.

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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, 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.

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