The conviction of Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox ethnically based Shas party, probably will put a fresh charge into an election campaign that was already characterized by a strong ethnic current.
"The more they persecute us, the better we do in the polls," said Shas lawmaker David Tal. Deri, who was convicted March 17, has said he will appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court.
Shas supporters, who are mostly observant Jewish immigrants - or children of immigrants - from Middle Eastern countries, broke into a defiant show of singing and dancing outside the court when the verdict was announced.
Judge Yaakov Tzemach said the tough sentence reflected the gravity of the crime.
He said Deri took bribes throughout his five years in public service, first as the youthful director-general of the Interior Ministry and then as interior minister.
"Bribe-taking became a way of life for him," Tzemach said. The bribe-taking "presented an extreme danger to the nation and the people ... Too much mercy would be cruel to society," he said.
Deri stepped down as interior minister in 1993 when police launched an investigation.
Deri's arrival at the District Court in east Jerusalem was delayed 38 minutes because he visited Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader, who is recovering from a mild heart attack. The Jerusalem Marathon also delayed his motorcade's arrival.
"A little proportion," Deri said when reporters asked him if his tardiness displayed contempt for the court. "Rabbi Ovadia has just gone through a difficult treatment ... There is a greater power. Not everything is in our control."
The leaders of all three major parties have taken pains to avoid saying they wouldn't work with Deri, who is expected to retain a strong following in the party, should he go to jail.
Shas has a core following of several hundred thousand followers, but can count on backing from hundreds of thousands more when tensions between Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews run high.
Shas leaders said the verdict was just the element that would ignite Sephardic anger and expand the party's power base.
"There are more than 1 million people in Israel who claim now that he is innocent, that he is pure and clean," Deri's brother, Yehuda Deri, told reporters.
In its earlier 917-page decision, the court ruled that the Moroccan-born politician used the Interior Ministry in the 1980s to illegally direct government funds toward Shas projects in local municipalities, and that he pocketed $155,000 in bribes.
It was not immediately clear who stood to benefit most at the polls from any Sephardic anger stoked by he verdict. Although Deri in the past has backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shas joined a left-leaning Labor coalition after 1992 elections.
Complicating matters even further, an Iraqi-born ex-General and former Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, has ignited the passions of many Sephardi voters. Another popular Sephardi leader, David Levy, has defected Netanyahu's party to ally himself with Labor candidate Ehud Barak.
©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated contributed to this report