At heart of Israeli scandal is charming, indicted rabbi Netanyahu ally denies he's influence peddler


JERUSALEM -- When Aryeh Deri arrived at a religious rally last month, supporters of his Shas political party roared out his name. And a song on the loudspeakers blared: "May God protect you from all evil."

The evil, in the minds of many that evening, was yet another criminal investigation that involved Deri. This time it has also ensnared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the premier's chief of staff, and the country's justice minister.

The case has become known as "the Bar-On Affair," after Roni Bar-On, who briefly served as attorney general.

But the central figure of the investigations is Deri, who allegedly demanded that Bar-On be named attorney general so he could cut Deri a deal. The idea was that Bar-On would end Deri's 2-year-old trial on corruption charges, thereby allowing him to retake a Cabinet post.

Deri had been charged with fraud, accepting bribes and falsifying documents. The charges stemmed from decisions he made between 1985 and 1990 when he was successively director general of the Interior Ministry and then interior minister in the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir.

Deri was accused, for example, of accepting $167,000 in an influence-peddling scheme in which three other men were charged. Prosecutors say that Deri used his influence to change the zoning of a tract of land owned by nonprofit organizations controlled by the men. The change allowed construction to begin -- on a site where Deri also owned a plot, according to newspaper reports of the trial.

Prosecutors also allege that Deri used the money to enrich himself -- in the form of apartments in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, along with travel and hotel stays.

"Aryeh," Deri's first name, means lion in Hebrew. It fits him well: He is a charming, 38-year-old rabbi, who also is a shrewd politician who strikes back when he can.

When an Israeli newspaper alleged that he purchased four houses with state money, he bought ads in competing publications to proclaim his innocence. He once appeared on television with the results of a lie detector test which, he said, showed he had done nothing wrong.

Twice in his long legal ordeal, he has professed a desire to return to the yeshiva world.

Seven years ago

The case against him dates back seven years, beginning with a government report that found that Deri had channeled $27 million in state funds to religious institutions, many of them affiliated with his Shas Party.

The findings led one member of Parliament to dub Deri "Robin Hood," suggesting his philosophy amounted to robbing "from the rich, [to] give to the poor." The government report also suggested that the practice bought votes for Shas and in turn expanded Deri's influence.

Deri maintained he didn't invent political patronage and made no apologies for using it.

"I believe it is part of the democratic way of life in Israel that a person promotes the issues for which he has been elected," Deri said in a 1992 interview with the weekly Jerusalem Report.

"Am I the first to work this way? Take any government office and take the period when a specific minister served there, and you will see which issues were promoted."

His was a kind of "affirmative action policy," according to one account at the time. In a 1991 interview with the Jerusalem Report, the director general of the Interior Ministry said Deri's actions had merely addressed years of discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox Jews and other minorities.

As many as 70 police officers have worked in the investigation. Deri says the investigators have interviewed 3,000 people. When he was indicted, he was forced to resign his ministerial post, although he remains a powerful figure in Parliament.

Deri, who was born in Morocco, entered politics at age 25 and adroitly marshaled the Jews of Arab descent into a political force, one which the mainstream parties would need as an ally. And Deri found himself in positions of power, becoming a Cabinet minister at age 29.

Deri has maintained the police investigation -- begun under a Likud prime minister -- was politically motivated.

"Lies, slander, persecution"

In a 1993 interview with the Shas Party newspaper, Deri explained it this way: "The right understood that Shas' growing power from election to election posed a threat to their rule. They knew they had to stop it, and the only way was to annihilate us by lies, slander and persecution."

The central witness in the police case against Prime Minister Netanyahu, Deri and the others has been identified as Deri's former lawyer, Dan Avi Yitzhak.

Israel's attorney general is expected to announce tomorrow whether anyone will be charged.

If Deri is the only person indicted, Shas has threatened to withdraw its support from Netanyahu's government. If Shas withdraws its support, Netanyahu's government will fall, forcing new elections.

Pub Date: 4/19/97

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