How guilty verdict could be gain

Protesting conviction of its leader, Shas Party hopes to recharge imageas ethnic underdog and woo votes.

Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party in Israel that represents Sephardic Jews, who immigrated from Muslim countries, has always told its supporters they weren't getting a fair deal from the Ashkenazi establishment, the ruling class with European origins.

A case in point, Shas leaders say, is the verdict for former Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of Shas who was convicted on Wednesday of bribery, fraud, and breaching the public trust after a six-year trial. Shas leaders and supporters believe Rabbi Deri is innocent.

But the verdict may well serve to boost his party's election fortunes by recharging its image as the ethnic underdog - and turning its prosecuted leader into a cause clbre.

Lamenting the judgment with other black-suited supporters outside the Jerusalem district courthouse, seminary student David Amal says Shas - an acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians - would only be fortified by Deri's loss.

"In the Bible, it says that the more a man is tortured, the more he will rise up and go forth," says Mr. Amal, who owes his free tuition and government stipend to Deri's negotiations with the government during budget season. Shas, which holds a powerful 10-seat bloc in the 120-seat Knesset, has been a key coalition partner in both left- and right-wing regimes.

Exacerbating the injured feelings of Deri's many supporters, who revere him as a sort of Everyman's advocate, Israeli troops and riot police were sent out in large numbers in anticipation of a violent backlash after the verdict. None materialized.

"I think Israel should be ashamed of itself for bring out all these Border Police for something like this," says Shimon Nagar, the top Shas official in Bet Shean, a Sephardic stronghold. "I think we'll be strengthened by five to 10 seats in the next elections."

But the votes of Sephardim - who account for about half of the 5.6 million population - are scattered across the political map. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party has proved the most popular mainstream party for Sephardim, who are largely estimated to be right-of-center when it comes to negotiations with Israel's Arab neighbors.

But the Likud's pull with such voters is now threatened by a new centrist party that put Yitzhak Mordechai, a Sephardic Jew who served as Mr. Netanyahu's defense minister until his recent dismissal, at the head of its list. Ehud Barak, the leader of the left-wing Labor Party, is making his own attempts to woo Sephardic voters by visiting impoverished towns where they live and offering apologies for mistreatment by his predecessors, who founded the state.

Many Sephardic voters, however, look likely to stick by Netanyahu out of loyalty to him - and a sense among some that Mr. Mordechai deserted him for the left wing.

Shlomo Ben-Izri, one of the Shas's leading ideologues in the Knesset, says his own parents wouldn't vote for him. Immigrants from Morocco, they still cling to Likud and "could never bring themselves" to vote for the left-wing establishment - a dirty word in Sephardic circles. Many observers here say that is attributable to the politics of the 1970s, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

"He fought against the discrimination by the Ashkenazim, and until this day, [Sephardim] think that the Likud gave them pride again," says Rabbi Ben-Izri, the deputy health minister.

In the 1980s, Shas presented a religious alternative. Relying on traditionalist sentiments and mysticism that have long been popular among Sephardim, it told potential followers that a life of religion was the solution to the unemployment, crime, and drug abuse that afflicted many Sephardic towns. With free Torah study and preschools, revivalist meetings, and charismatic music, Shas has attracted thousands.

Deri's charismatic politicking has even won over some support from Israeli Arabs, who have welcomed his statements about fighting for their betterment, too.

And, unlike the other Orthodox parties in the Knesset, Shas is flexible on the question of trading land for peace with the Palestinians: Shas's spiritual leader and chief decisionmaker, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has ruled that saving lives must supercede the desire to safeguard the biblical land of Israel - today's West Bank. That makes Shas malleable enough to join up with dovish and hawkish governments - and eagerly courted by both ends of the spectrum.

Deri still maintains his innocence, a fact that looks sure to galvanize many supporters ahead of the May ballot. "I didn't take bribes from anyone," Deri said Wednesday, choking back tears at a press conference at the home of Rabbi Yosef. "The court is mistaken.... At two months before the election, this is a test for us."

For Israelis who are less impressed with Deri and the sway he's held on politicians here for the past decade, the verdict was a sign of law triumphing over patronage. Many secular Israelis, who represent about 70 percent of the public, have come to resent the influence of religious parties and their reactionary platforms. Holding up banners that read "No Coalitions with Shas or Ultra-Orthodox" near the courthouse, a clique of young women with different shades of red, pink, and lavender dyes in their hair said they would be glad to see Deri go to jail.

"I don't think it has anything to do with his being Sephardi," says Tali Jablonka, a Tel Aviv native who came to Jerusalem to join the counterprotest. "They took bribes. That's what Shas does. We work and all our tax money goes to them."

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