JERUSALEM -- Israeli politician Aryeh Deri, a street-savvy rabbi who marshaled the country's ultra-Orthodox Jews of Arabic and North African ancestry into a political force, was convicted yesterday in a bribery scandal that has plagued him for nine years.
Deri's black-coated followers, who danced and sang his praises outside the court, vowed to take their revenge in the May 17 elections. Deri, a 40-year-old father of eight who was born in Morocco, heads the Sephardic Torah Guardians party, known as Shas.
The party holds 10 of the 120 seats in parliament, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset. In the past decade, it has become a key partner in Israel's coalition governments, whether hard-line Likud or dovish Labor, neither of which has been able to win an absolute majority on its own.
Despite the conviction, Deri maintained his innocence.
"God is trying me, and I hope I will meet the test. I didn't take bribes from anyone. This is not the Aryeh Deri I know," Deri said last night, seated alongside the influential Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Yosef, a former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, staunchly defended Deri. "By law, he's innocent," the rabbi said fervently.
In the days leading up to the verdict, some Shas supporters vowed to take to the street in a massive protest if their leader was convicted. Pleas for restraint by Deri and Yosef kept most at home.
"We will react with actions and they will be firm actions in the coming election," said Aryeh Cohen, a Shas leader from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon le-Ziyyon. "I believe we will grow to at least 18 members of the Knesset. We will widen our movement, to make it even bigger, to open even more [religious] study centers."
The widening divide between religious and secular communities is among Israel's most pressing social concerns. The more influence the Orthodox wield, the more they can affect aspects of life here, from the opening of stores on the Jewish Sabbath to permitting the more liberal sects of Judaism to perform marriages and conversions -- all of which they oppose.
Deri, a member of Israel's parliament who held his first political post at age 29, was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a case that dates to his tenure as director general of the Interior Ministry and later as minister.
In the most serious charge, the three-judge panel found Deri guilty of taking $170,000 in bribes.
Deri's conviction won't keep him from running in the May 17 elections. But a jail sentence in excess of a year would bar him from a Cabinet post for a decade after his release. Deri's lawyer said he would appeal the verdict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was backed by Shas in the 1996 election, expressed sympathy for Deri and his family. But he reminded Israelis that the laws of the state must be respected.
"All of us are duty-bound to respect the court's decision. Without it, we have no life in this country. I view very gravely threats on judges and we won't stand for it," Netanyahu said.
About 100 Shas supporters, who gathered outside the Jerusalem court, stood with banners proclaiming, "The nation is with you, Aryeh." Others held aloft posters of the Shas leader. A van, covered with pictures of Deri, played music.
When the decision was announced, some wept. Others condemned the verdict as another attack on the growing power of Israel's Sephardim, Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Since their arrival in the immigration airlifts of the 1950s, Sephardic Jews have felt discriminated against by Israel's power elite, the Jews of European ancestry who founded the country.
"We have been neglected. The Sephardim, we are on the lowest rung of the ladder. And finally we had a leader and he came and we felt the burden lifted from our shoulders," said Dina Sharoni, 60, of Jerusalem. "He [Deri] made my culture legitimate. He made my rituals legitimate. He is like our father."
Added Ahuva Yosef, 38, of Rishon le-Ziyyon: "This is the most important time for Shas to rise and show its true face."
Cohen, the Shas leader, said despite the conviction, Deri will continue to lead the party and its followers.
Even from a jail cell?
"God forbid," Cohen replied.
Pub Date: 3/18/99