Aryeh Deri Was Sworn in as a Minister in Israel’s Gov’t but the Courts Could Change That
Early last year, Aryeh Deri, the leader of Israel’s Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, resigned from the Knesset as part of a plea bargain under which he admitted to tax offenses stemming from fraudulent real estate transactions. Under the agreement, he admitted to not reporting income in two cases and agreed to pay a $58,000 fine. At the same time, then-Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit agreed to not require a finding of moral turpitude if Deri would resign his current seat in Knesset. A finding of moral turpitude would have required the powerful party leader to remove himself from politics for the next seven years.
Deri knows what it means to sit out of politics; he served a three-year jail sentence until 2002 on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust for taking bribes while serving as interior minister with a finding of moral turpitude, and was permitted to return to politics in 2011, only entering Knesset again in 2013 after being reelected. He has since served as the party’s head and as a lawmaker and minister in several governments.
While Deri was allowed under the plea deal to continue to lead the Shas party, the court appears to have believed that he would not attempt to reenter Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, without the court first being able to reconsider the issue of moral turpitude. But Deri claims that he only agreed to not rejoin the Knesset that he resigned from, not future governments.
The Shas party under Deri last month joined Israel’s 37th government, the sixth headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. As part of the party’s coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud party, Deri as head of Shas was named to the cabinet as both interior and health minister. The Knesset late last month amended one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws regarding the fitness of a person to serve as a government minister, necessary in order to allow Deri to be sworn in as a minister in the new government. The amended law states that moral turpitude can only be determined if a person actually serves time in jail. Under the plea bargain that Deri signed, despite admitting to being guilty of the tax offenses, he did not receive a prison sentence. The amendment also was immediately applied to the new government, instead of taking effect in the next government.
Though Deri was sworn in with his fellow government ministers earlier this month, his ability to remain a government minister is currently in jeopardy after activist groups turned to the Supreme Court. The groups argue that Deri should not be allowed to serve as a minister due to his criminal conviction last year and that the change in the law was done hastily to accommodate one person and was “a complete violation of the trust” in the elective body from the people.
The High Court is expected to rule this week on whether Deri can remain a government minister, and it could also offer an opinion on the process that led to the change in the basic law for Deri’s benefit.
But the Supreme Court’s ruling – which is not likely to be in Deri’s favor – might not be enough to end this painful first chapter in the new government. That’s because Deri reportedly told his party during a faction meeting at the Knesset on Monday that he would not resign his position, no matter what the court decides. And that means that if the court decides it is not reasonable for Deri to serve as a government minister, it will be up to Netanyahu to fire Deri, whose party holds 11 seats in the Knesset. If the Shas party would decide to leave the government over Deri’s firing, though this appears to be unlikely, it could bring about the government’s dissolution.
Deri is not going to make it easy on the prime minister, either. Israel’s Channel 12 quoted him on Monday as saying: “We don’t know when the High Court’s decision will be given, but it is known in advance. It’s not my problem, it’s Netanyahu’s headache.”
Instead of firing Deri, Netanyahu could choose to ignore the High Court’s ruling. This is likely to lead to new petitions by the same and other activist groups calling on the Supreme Court to order Netanyahu to fire Deri, or to a full-blown constitutional crisis.
On the other hand, senior coalition officials told Haaretz that Deri would ultimately resign his ministerial positions if the Supreme Court rules that he should not be allowed to serve. One of the unnamed sources said that Deri’s remarks that he would not quit his positions were “intended as a threat to the High Court justices before they make their decision.”
According to Channel 12, members of the government coalition have made it clear that if the Supreme Court rules against Deri on the grounds that his inclusion in the cabinet would be unreasonable, it will immediately file legislation to remove the reasonableness test that the court is able to use regarding government decisions.
Eliminating the court’s ability to cancel government decisions based on a reasonableness test is meant to be part of the package of judicial reforms proposed by the new, solidly right-wing government. The reforms are opposed by the political opposition, most of which represents citizens on the left of the political spectrum. More than 80,000 citizens turned up in Tel Aviv in the pouring rain on Saturday night to protest the reforms, while thousands of others protested in Jerusalem and Haifa. The reforms would allow a sitting government to overturn High Court rulings, likely with a majority of 61 MKs; give the ruling coalition decisive control over the choice of new justices; and allow government ministers to choose their own legal advisers. The legislation could already come to the Knesset for approval in two months, according to Channel 12.
Deri, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco in 1968 at the age of 9, is married with nine children and lives in the ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem.