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December 29th;Corruption Scandal, Deri Resigns

by Marc Schulman

Looking from a distance one would expect that an election in Israel at this time would likely focus on questions of war and peace. After all, Israel fought a war this past summer in which all of its major cities came under missile fire, and that same enemy is now threatening – once again – to resume the war if Israel does not lift the blockade on Gaza, (a blockade mostly emanating from Egypt, whose government despises the Hamas government in Gaza.) Alternatively, elections might pivet around the concern that the Islamic state has begun to gain control of areas opposite Israel’s border. Elections might also concentrate on Palestinian attempts to gain recognition of their status as a nation-state from the UN, without having any negotiations. All of these are possible hot-button election issues – and the elections are still over two months away. However, at the moment the two most important news items spotlight what looks like the largest corruption scandal in the history of Israel; which might destroy Avigdor Lieberman’s party and the internecine warfare taking place in the Shas party (now split into two) over disputes regarding who are the true disciples of Rabbi Yosef, the party’s spiritual leader, who died this past year. As a result, the current head of Shas resigned tonight.

In the past few days the party of the Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister (called “Yisrael Beiteinu) has been rocked by scandal. Faina Kirschebaum, the Deputy Minister of Interior, and close confidant of Lieberman, along with the Secretary General of the party, a former minister and others have all been accused of participating in a widespread, well-organized corruption ring, that promised governmental or party money in return for personal kickbacks. Over 30 people have been arrested. The fact that Faina Kirschenbaum has parliamentary immunity is the sole barrier stopping her from being arrested. The expectation is that these very much ongoing criminal investigations will shortly announce additional ministries and government officials that operate under a cloud.

While this is not the first time that people from within the Yisrael Beiteinu party are being investigated, (e.g. Lieberman himself was investigated for over ten years with one case being dropped and him being found not guilty in the second,) those were complicated cases that involved foreign funds or appointments. These current cases are much easier for everyone to understand; i.e. money would be allocated in return for kickbacks. This scandal is widespread and no one knows where it will end and whether it will go beyond the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The second fight has been between the two ultra-Orthodox Sephardic parties Shas and the breakaway The Nation is with us party. A video was released yesterday showing the recently deceased Rabbi Yosef saying derogatory things about Arye Deri, the present Shas party head. The video clip has created a great deal of consternation in the party and among the supporters of Shas. Today the children of Rabbi Yosef, including the current Chief Sephardic Rabbi, went to their father’s grave to pray ask forgiveness over what was done to his memory, through the publicizing of this unflattering video. Tonight after the revelation of additional bad things said by Rabbi Yosef about the actions of Aryeh Deri came to light, Deri resigned as the head of the Shas party.

The generally accepted wisdom is that these two events will help the right. Both Avigdor Lieberman and to a lesser extent Arye Deri have made it clear that their support following the next election was up for grabs – that they might not recommend Prime Minister Netanyahu and could potentially support Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog. Many think that the result of these party scandals might be additional support for Netanyahu’s party the Likud. More likely they will result in support for either the HaBayit HaYehudi, led by Naftali Bennet (a party to the right of Likud) or to the new party started by Moshe Kachlon. Albeit in very different ways, either result could endanger the continued leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

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