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Who is Arye Deri?

Exactly two years ago, on a baking hot morning the police closed off many of Jerusalem’s main roads as thousands of people filled the streets for a most unusual party. No birthdays or anniversaries in sight.

The party was thrown for one Arye Deri. It was his going-to-jail bash.

The courts said Deri was guilty of committing a variety of financial crimes and as such he was to be imprisoned for three years. Deri’s followers accused the judges of a witch-hunt, arguing that if Deri were not a religious, Sephardic Jew he would never have been tried. Deri himself simply said “it is God’s will.”

Deri has arguably been the most influential man in Israeli politics over the last two decades. He has made and destroyed governments. A mover and a shaker, Deri has been happy to serve in both left- and right-wing governments.

Deri came to prominence after he befriended the son of Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Then he was a student at the Hebron Talmudical College, alongside Yosef’s son.

Hebron is an Ashkenazic college – for those who originated in Eastern Europe, and as such did not actively encourage Sephardic traditions.

Yosef was pained to see young Sephardic students wearing the traditional black garb of Eastern European Jewry, hear them praying in the Ashkenazic style and learning Ashkenazic texts. It was time for Sephardic Jews to return to their roots.

Initially, Yosef and Deri worked on the educational front, but soon it became clear to them that the only way to effect real change was by becoming part of the political elite. Soon, the highly talented Deri was heading the new Shas party. Through the 1990s he was the dominant force behind much of the decision making.

However, as Interior Minister the courts believe he let his power get the better of him, as he awarded funds and contracts in return for financial backhanders.

But the enigmatic, some would say inspirational, Deri, seemed to be the glow of light for Sephardic Jews be they religious or traditional. Therefore, despite the rather large black mark next to his name, Deri is still revered by many.

The Ma’asiyahu prison parole board approved Deri’s early release yesterday. After serving two-thirds of his sentence, Deri is now a free man – although he is disbarred from serving as a Knesset member for seven years and a minister for 10.

Those restrictions have hardly prevented the media from having a bean feast over his release from jail. Pundits have been speculating for days as to whether Deri will try somehow to unseat Shas Chairman Eli Yishai; or whether he will return to politics as part of a new cross-party grouping, including National Religious Party leader Effie Eitam, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and headed by former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; or whether he will dedicate the next few years to religious study in order to become the natural replacement for the aged Yosef.

Whatever Deri’s next move, it will certainly be exceptionally well thought out. If you had not heard of Arye Deri before reading this, watch out for his name, because, one day, you will probably be hearing a lot more about him.