Bar-On affair sparking Ashkenazi-Sephardi tensions

JERUSALEM — Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has rejected charges that ethnic or religious bias played a role in his decision to indict Aryeh Deri in connection with the Bar-On affair.

Rubinstein's statement on Thursday of last week marked his first public remarks since announcing his decision to indict the Shas leader for allegedly seeking the January appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general in exchange for a plea bargain in his own ongoing corruption trial and support for the Hebron redeployment.

Rubinstein and State Attorney Edna Arbel did not indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi or other top officials, citing lack of sufficient evidence.

Supporters of Deri, who heads the ultra-religious Shas Party, held a rally Wednesday of last week and charged that an anti-Sephardi bias sparked his indictment.

The backbone of Shas support comes from ultra-religious Jews of Sephardi background.

At the rally in Jerusalem, Deri accused the "Zionist establishment" of subverting Sephardi culture. That despite President Ezer Weizman's appeal to Shas not to blame the indictments on "the ethnic card."

"I implore you, do not use this report, God forbid, as an excuse to turn the issue into one of discrimination against the Sephardic communities by the Ashkenazis," Weizman told Shas leaders in a meeting Thursday of last week. "This argument began 50 years ago and in recent times has waned…We don't want to go backwards."

Rubinstein said police evidence had provided the sole basis for his recommendations. His remarks came in the wake of reports that in their final deliberations, he and Arbel had ignored three senior prosecutors who believed that there was sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu and Hanegbi.

According to Israeli media reports, the three prosecutors outlined their view in a detailed 15-page internal document that said there was sufficient evidence to show that Netanyahu appointed Bar-On exclusively or mostly due to pressure from Deri.

Deri's lawyer said last week that the three had also written that if indictments were not recommended against Netanyahu and Hanegbi, then none should be recommended against Deri, since such a move would appear questionable.

Rubinstein and Arbel have refused to release the internal document, which several groups demanded in order to back up petitions they submitted to the High Court of Justice seeking to overturn the attorney general's decision not to indict Netanyahu and Hanegbi.

Bar-On won Cabinet approval Jan. 10, but stepped down two days later amid growing charges that he lacked the experience to hold Israel's top legal post.

Two weeks later, the Cabinet unanimously approved Rubinstein to serve as Israel's attorney general.

A three-month police investigation was launched after an Israel Television report alleged that Bar-On was appointed as part of a deal to provide a plea bargain to Deri.

In a 995-page report submitted to Rubinstein and Arbel, police investigators had recommended that charges be brought against Netanyahu and Hanegbi.

At the Deri rally, 15,000 Shas backers chanted, "We are all Deri" as he was carried aloft to a stage.

The recommended indictment against him "is religious and ethnic persecution," said Deri. "They fear that the `Shasniks' will change the face of this country."

People carried signs saying: "Aryeh, the people are with you," "Deri = Dreyfuss," "We are all Deri," and "Sephardi haters, cease the witch-hunt."

Rabbi David Yosef, son of Deri's mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, also castigated Israel's media, which many Shas backers blame for the Bar-On affair.

"For once, speak the truth, speak the truth," he urged the journalists gathered in front of the podium.