AG demands Netanyahu fire Deri after High Court disqualifies him as minister

Shas leader has vowed to battle decision; his legal woes are expected to play an outsize role in the government’s ongoing push to remake the judiciary

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Health and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem, January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Health and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem, January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara demanded on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fire Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri from the cabinet, in line with the High Court of Justice’s explosive decision the previous day to bar Deri from being a minister in light of his criminal convictions.

Baharav-Miara said that “MK Deri cannot continue to serve as a minister in the Government of Israel,” and wrote to Netanyahu that “you must act in line with the legal ruling and remove [Deri] from his roles in the government,” in a letter dated Wednesday but released by her office on Thursday.

The High Court ruled that Shas leader Deri’s dual appointments as health and interior minister were “unreasonable in the extreme” in light of his recent and past financial crimes, and that Deri had misled a magistrate’s court into thinking he would retire from political life in order to evade a determination that his recent tax fraud conviction carried “moral turpitude,” a finding that would have automatically barred him from office for seven years.

Deri is a key powerbroker in Netanyahu’s nascent government, and after the court’s ruling the prime minister’s Likud joined other coalition parties in pledging to do anything legally possible to return Deri to the government’s ranks. Deri’s legal trouble is expected to play an outsize role in the government’s ongoing push to remake the judiciary by increasing political power at the expense of the courts.

Deri and Netanyahu have yet to announce whether Deri will resign, Netanyahu will fire him, or if they will disobey the court decision, although it is expected that Deri will leave his posts while faction leaders evaluate their options.

In recent days, coalition lawmakers and ministers including United Torah Judaism’s Yisrael Eichler and Otzma Yehudit’s Amichai Eliyahu have called for ignoring the court’s decision or said that the court does not have the authority to disqualify Deri.

“The High Court has no right to demand that it be obeyed — it’s a dictatorship like Putin,” Eichler told Army Radio on Thursday morning. On Wednesday, Eliyahu said, “I call on my partners in the government not to comply with the High Court’s ruling as it is an illegal decision.”

While there is little precedent for politicians to disobey the High Court, in 2020, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein resigned the Knesset speakership in order to avoid complying with a court order to hold elections for his replacement.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, May 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Should Deri leave office, normally his portfolios would automatically transfer to the prime minister. However, Netanyahu is himself under indictment in three cases currently at trial, and is barred by law from holding any ministry save the premiership.

In his first reaction to the decision on Wednesday, Deri said that he would not give up his fight.

“When they close the door on us, we’ll get in through the window. When they close the window we’ll break through the ceiling, with God’s help,” he said, vowing to “continue the revolution our predecessors began, with even greater devotion and energy.”

The High Court knocked down Deri’s appointment on two grounds: first, that it failed a “reasonableness” test, and second, employing the principle of judicial estoppel to say that Deri had contradicted himself regarding his intention to continue serving in public life.

As part of Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s multi-part judicial reform plan, the coalition plans to eliminate the judicial reasonableness test. Had the court’s ruling been restricted to this measure, the coalition could seemingly have solved Deri’s conundrum by fast-tracking relevant legislation.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin attends a hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice committee, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Legal analysts have predicted that the judicial estoppel argument raises a more formidable bar to Deri resuming his seat at the cabinet table.

Alternative solutions to keep Deri in a position of influence, while not necessarily in the cabinet, have reportedly been floated, including making him Knesset speaker.

In December, Netanyahu’s bloc rushed through a change to Basic Law: The Government to smooth over Deri’s ministerial appointments, despite his January 2022 conviction for tax evasion. Without the legislation, Deri would have been sent to the Central Elections Committee for a determination on whether his crimes carried moral turpitude, a designation that disqualifies its bearer from office.

In accordance with his January 2022 plea deal, Deri skipped a ruling on moral turpitude by being allowed to quit Knesset before the judgment, on the expectation that he would be permanently retiring from public life.

In 2000, Deri was convicted and incarcerated for taking bribes while previously a minister.

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