IN A MOVE likely to worsen the deep tribal tensions in Israel, Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas party, is to fight the 17 May election on the issue of his innocence of a charge of bribery, for which he has been sentenced to four years in prison.
In a videotape, hundreds of thousands of copies of which are to be distributed by Shas, Israel's third biggest party, Mr Deri says he was framed by "the elites" in a plot intended to destroy him and his party. He is still free while he appeals against the sentence, passed earlier this month, for taking $155,000 (pounds 98,000) in bribes.
Supporters of Shas are mainly poor, religious Jews whose families came originally from North Africa and the Middle East. They resent the wealth, secular traditions and grip on power of the Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin).
On the tape Mr Deri says: "There is a group in the State of Israel which feels that this country belongs to it. [This group] decided to establish a secular state in which it is forbidden to mention Torah, Judaism and the Sabbath."
He called on supporters to vote for Shas to protest against the effort "to kill Deri and to eliminate Shas". It is unclear if Mr Deri's attempt to portray himself as a martyr will succeed outside the hard core of Shas supporters. But he and his party think it will and in the past they have proved good judges of the mood among Israelis originating in the Middle East.
Shas is also fighting to keep control of the Interior Ministry, once headed by Mr Deri, against the claims of Yisrael Ba'aliyah, the main Russian immigrant party. Shas needs the ministry because it sets municipal budgets, while the Russians want it because it determines which immigrants are accepted as Jews.
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