Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara threw a wrench into Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest effort to appoint Aryeh Deri as a cabinet minister in his expected coalition, with the release of a letter on Sunday saying the Central Elections Committee would need to rule on whether there was moral turpitude involved in the Shas leader’s recent criminal conviction.
Baharav-Miara wrote to Netanyahu on Thursday, saying that while Deri had received a suspended, rather than custodial, sentence, the matter of whether his crime involved moral turpitude had not been decided by the court and therefore a decision needed to be made by the Central Elections Committee.
The attorney general said that Deri would still be permitted to serve as a member of the Knesset.
Deri’s January criminal conviction was the second of his political career.
The law bars individuals sentenced to prison time from serving as ministers for seven years. In a plea deal, Deri received a 12-month suspended sentence.
By resigning from parliament before he signed the controversial deal with Baharav-Miara’s predecessor, Deri was able to dodge a conviction of moral turpitude.
Likud and Shas had attempted to find a way around the issue of Deri potentially not being allowed to serve as a minister. According to a Friday Channel 12 report, Deri approached one of Netanyahu’s former attorneys, Navot Tel-Zur, and requested that he draft a legal opinion maintaining that only individuals who were actually jailed would be barred from serving as ministers, as opposed to those who were handed suspended sentences.
In her letter to Netanyahu, Baharav-Miara informed him that she did not accept that legal opinion and that the Basic Law referred to both suspended sentences and those with time served.
An unnamed source from Shas told the Walla news site that the party had no intention of contacting the Central Elections Committee on the matter, “because we know the answer in advance.”
However, the Kan public broadcaster said that Netanyahu may decide to ask the committee for a ruling on the matter.
Ostensibly unconvinced that the alternative route would work, Shas MK Moshe Arbel has already drafted a bill to change clause six of Basic Law: Government, which would allow those who were given suspended sentences to receive ministerial appointments.
The bill will likely face challenges, but Shas and other parties of Netanyahu’s likely coalition are also pushing to pass separate, highly contentious legislation that would allow the Knesset to override decisions by the High Court of Justice.
According to a report last week, the right-wing bloc is hoping to replace the Knesset speaker in the next few days in order to gain control of the parliament’s legislative agenda, then quickly push through such legislation.
Channel 12 reported Saturday that Likud hoped to appoint key Netanyahu ally Yariv Levin temporarily to the speaker role as soon as Monday, but the plan was being delayed by the far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich has reportedly slowed the process in an attempt to strengthen his hand in ongoing coalition negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud.
The coalition talks have snagged on Smotrich’s unyielding demand that he be appointed defense minister. Some reports have suggested that he could be offered the Treasury instead.
In addition to his January conviction, Deri previously served 22 months in prison from 2000 to 2002, after he was convicted of taking bribes while serving as interior minister. That verdict carried a conviction of moral turpitude, keeping him out of national politics.
In 2013, he returned to politics, reclaiming the leadership of Shas and ultimately returning to serve as interior minister from 2016 until last year, when his party entered the opposition. A court had ruled that his prior conviction did not disqualify him from the position.
Netanyahu officially received a mandate to form a government last Sunday, giving him 28 days to assemble a majority coalition.
If he needs more time, he could seek a 14-day extension from President Isaac Herzog.