(MintPress) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to coast to an electoral victory Jan. 22, extending the right-wing Likud party control of the Knesset. Although the Likud coalition appears to have a firm grip on the electorate, the religious right in Israel poses the biggest challenge to Netanyahu and the secular right-wing.
For outsiders, this may appear to be nothing more than a competition between two right wing parties, one secular and one with a religious face, neither of which appears interested in dismantling settlements and establishing peace with the Palestinians. However, the rise of Shas, a Sephardi dominant party, bears testament to the growing advocacy of non-European Jewish populations, at one time they were strong proponents of the the late Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin’s peace process.
Enter Aryeh Deri, the former Shas party head widely regarded as a popular political figure even during his brief stint in prison on corruption charges. As the leader of Israel’s fourth largest political party, Deri wields tremendous clout and could be the wildcard upset in the upcoming Israeli elections.
Aryeh Deri resurfaces
The now infamous Deri quickly resurfaced in 2011, becoming something akin to New York’s Eliot Spitzer — a likeable figure with charisma who happens to be a former criminal.
Deri was sentenced to three years in prison in 2000 for accepting $155,000 in bribes during his previous service as Interior Minister. Despite these corruption charges, a former spokesperson for the late Yitzak Rabin once praised Deri for his “positive attitude toward the Palestinians and the peace process in general.”
Last month, after a 13 year hiatus, Deri was reinstated as the Shas party leader, marking his return to public service. Recent polls suggest that Deri’s return as the head of Shas could lead to three additional Knesset seats for the Orthodox party in upcoming elections, challenging the Likud-dominated coalition.
Deri helped grow the clout of his party significantly during the early 1990s, taking Shas from a marginalized political party on the periphery of Israeli politics, into the mainstream. Deri, originally from Morocco, has helped Sephardi communities — those communities with historical roots in North Africa and Spain — better integrate and advocate in a dominant European-Ashkenazi society.
Before the creation of Israel in 1948, there were substantial Jewish minority communities in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. In Morocco alone, there were well over 250,000 Jews living in Casablanca, Rabat and other cities. However, with successive immigrations to Israel, “aliyahs,” these communities have waned considerably in size.
Their integration into a new society largely constructed by the dominant European-Jewish community has been difficult as many Sephardim and Mizrahim (Jews from the Levant and Iraq) have faced significant discrimination.
Although sharing a common cultural heritage, many once moderate Shas members have become increasingly hawkish in their political positions, running concurrent to their rise in clout on the electoral stage.
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced any peace talks with the Palestinians, saying in 2010 that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should “perish from this world.”
Additionally, in 2001, Rabbi Yosef went on a racist diatribe calling for the destruction of the Palestinian people, saying, “It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.”
In less than 20 years, Shas has gone from the moderate party supporting peace negotiations and a two-state settlement to a hawkish, hateful political party heaping rhetorical gasoline on a conflagration that could consume the last hopes of a negotiated peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Even Rabbi Yosef at one point supported the establishment of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and negotiations with Palestinian leadership toward a two-state solution. However, after the second intifada in 2000, he and much of the party leadership moved increasingly rightward in their orientation.
This could be one of the biggest untold tragedies of the waning pro-peace community in Israel. By not capitalizing on this crucial rabbinical support when the political capital existed, the waning left wing coalition, headed by the joint Jewish-Arab Hadash party, may have lost one of the few opportunities to push for a comprehensive peace.
His rise runs parallel to the rise of the religious right in Israel as a growing coalition of Orthodox Ashkenazi and Mizrahi parties gains ground in the Knesset. Once a small minority within Israel’s mostly secular society, the Ultra-Orthodox now comprise 40 percent of the ruling coalition’s seats and 40 percent of new army officers and soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Although united under a banner of increasing the religious composition of Israeli society, there are still significant schisms along racial and ethnic lines.
Common Sephardic-Palestinian subjugation
While not as marginalized as Arab-Israelis, Sephardic Jewish communities coming originally from Spain and North Africa and Mizrachi communities from Iraq and Levantine countries continue to face discrimination in an overtly Ashkenazi (European) dominant society.
Although intermarriage among the different Jewish ethnic groups is on the rise, there remains a palpable discrimination in economic disparities.
The Ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party has increased its political clout and advanced Sephardic community advocacy considerably.
In the Labor party, Amir Peretz rose to prominence as the first Sephardic Prime Minister in Israel’s history.
The advocacy of marginalized communities should be inherently unified as common victims of neoliberal capitalism continues to shape the economic stratification based on race inside Israel and in the occupied territories.
In fact, a study by Adva Center found that the Ashkenazi citizens of Israel earned 36 percent more than Mizrahi citizens. Many of these issues came to a head during the 2011 social protests across Israel, the largest demonstrations in Israel’s 64 year history.
As many as 400,000 people in a country of 7.5 million demonstrated to protest the high cost of living and income disparities.
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