Party’s Official Name: Shas (Shomrei Sfarad)
Spiritual Leader – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Political Leaders – Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri, Ariel Atias
MKs in current Knesset – 10 (after departure of Chaim Amsellem)
Latest Haaretz poll – 11
Thirteen years after his conviction for bribery forced him out of politics, Aryeh Deri was welcomed back into the Shas fold — to the dismay of his successor as party chairman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai. In an attempt to prevent internecine warfare, Rabbi Ovadia has canceled the party’s chairman post and ruled that from now on it will be led by a triumvirate of Deri, Yishai and Housing Minister Ariel Atias. It is still unclear which of the three has the last word on party matters, who will serve as its senior minister in the next government and whether the charismatic Deri still has the incredible rapport with Mizrahi voters (of Middle Eastern and North African descent) that brought Shas seventeen Knesset seats in the 1999 elections.
Founded in 1984 by Rabbi Ovadia as the answer to decades of discrimination by the Ashkenazi-dominated religious establishment, Shas has rarely been out of the coalition, any coalition, in all the years since. Officially Shas is a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox “social” party, but it has been flexible in the past on all these banners. It sat in left-wing and centrist governments, has agreed to compromises in religious legislation and has rarely if ever challenged the financial system. Many of its voters are less observant, traditional Sephardi citizens who have jobs and serve in the IDF while the party continues to oppose military service for yeshiva students and fights for more scholarship funding.
The makeup of the Knesset list is decided solely by Rabbi Ovadia and the other rabbis on the Council of Torah Sages, which he chairs, and MKs are measured mainly by their ability to secure funding for institutions aligned with the party, rather than their potential attraction to voters. Deri was the rare example of a Shas politician who was a wizard at both and the rabbis are betting that despite his years in exile, he can still work that magic. So far the polls have been inconclusive. None of them show a major surge in Shas’ fortunes though some predict modest gains. But the party has often been underestimated by pollsters, only to emerge yet again as coalition kingmakers.