Yishai was born in Jerusalem in 1962. He served in the IDF and studied at Yeshivat Hanegev and Yeshivat Porat Yosef.
Yishai was a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council (1991), Secretary-General of the Shas party (1993-1994) and Director General of El Hama'ayan, the Shas-affiliated educational institution (1995-1996).
Yishai was elected to the Knesset in 1996 and served as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs from June 1996 - July 1999.
He served as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs from July 1999 until his resignation in July 2000.
Eli Yishai served as Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister from March 2001 until February 2003. In the 15th and 16th Knessets he served as a Member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Eli Yishai served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor from May 2006 until March 2009, when he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior in the Netanyahu government.
In November 2009, Yishai criticised efforts to block the deportation of migrant families, claiming that it would encourage further immigration, which would bring in "a range of diseases such as hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis and AIDS". His claims were contradicted by organisations working with immigrants and by data from the Israeli Health Ministry.
In May 2012, during a wave of attacks on Africans sparked by an alleged rape by immigrants, Forward reported:
- “Most of the African [immigrants] are criminals,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Army Radio, using the common term “infiltrators” to refer to immigrants. “I would put all of them, without exception, into a prison or other holding facility, and from there give each of them a grant and send them back to their countries.”
- Eliyahu Yishai, knesset.co.il
- Eliyahu Yishai, MK, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior (Shas), Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed 14 June 2012.
- Dana Weiler-Polak, Israel proposes work camps for illegal migrants, Haaretz, 5 November 2009.
- Ron Friedman, Health Ministry data refutes Yishai's claims that African refugees bring in disease, Jerusalem Post, 6 November 2009, archived at Physicians for Human Rights - Israel.
- Nathan Jaffay, Israeli Anger Over 'African' Crime Wave, Jewish Daily Forward, 27 May 2012.