Inside storyCoalition 'worries him to the point of existential anxiety'

Bitter, frustrated and afraid: Deri to quit observer role in security cabinet

Shas leader, wary of influence of far-right Smotrich and Ben Gvir, is working overtime to keep Gallant in the Defense Ministry, raising tensions with Netanyahu, who won’t forgive

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri pictured at a faction meeting in the Knesset on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri pictured at a faction meeting in the Knesset on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas chair Aryeh Deri is annoyed and frustrated, and he has good reason to be. This week, he decided that he will no longer continue to attend security cabinet meetings.

After the High Court of Justice removed Deri as health and interior minister in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to compensate Deri and invite him to be a cabinet observer.

Deri participated in just three meetings before deciding he would no longer attend. He did not like his status as a mere observer and was unsure how much influence he had on the extreme composition of the cabinet.

When cabinet ministers need to vote, observers are asked to leave the room. For Deri, who at the beginning of the year sat next to Netanyahu and was a central figure in the government, this was somewhat humiliating.

What’s more, Deri wants Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to remain in his position. Since the formation of the government, Deri has been very fearful of the influence of far-right figures Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, on security matters.

During coalition negotiations, Deri had insisted on taking the defense role when Smotrich was demanding the position, until the Religious Zionism leader consented to receive the finance portfolio.

Deri is currently anxious that the prime minister will implement his decision to fire Gallant after the defense minister expressed concern last Saturday night over the immediate danger posed to the security of the country due to the coalition’s judicial overhaul plans.

Deri fears that in such a case, the defense role may be taken by a weak and inexperienced candidate, who will collapse under the endless pressure campaign and the weight of the other ministers dealing with national security, Ben Gvir and Smotrich.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In private conversations, Deri continues to criticize what is happening in the West Bank, in Huwara, at the flashpoint Temple Mount site, and also in Israel’s relations with the United States — all this as a result of extremism in the government.

Deri has thrown himself into trying to solve the Gallant matter with all his might. On Monday, after a night of spontaneous nationwide demonstrations in the streets after the announcement of Gallant’s ousting, Deri came to the prime minister and demanded that he stop the judicial legislation and prevent the dismissal of the defense minister.

“You’re not going to get anything this way. You’re just falling apart,” Deri told him.

Netanyahu did pause the legislative process, but on the matter of Gallant, he has not relented. Netanyahu is furious with his defense minister precisely because he went to the public with his important statement last Saturday night when the prime minister was just preparing to return home from London.

From Netanyahu’s perspective, it was a personal betrayal. The prime minister said he fought hard to appoint Gallant as defense minister, rejecting Smotrich along the way, while Gallant worked behind his back and sent hundreds of thousands to the street.

If you ask Gallant, he will say that Netanyahu was the one who conned him: Netanyahu promised to stop the legislation on that same weekend but did not stand by his word.

While Netanyahu announced he had fired Gallant, he did not send him the official letter as required by law, leaving the situation in limbo, with Gallant continuing to carry out his duties for now.

Either way, Deri won’t give up. Last Wednesday, he met and spoke at length with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi. I asked Deri on Thursday what they talked about but he refused to say. Deri’s associates claimed the military chief expressed concerns about extremism in the security establishment and government. Halevi, they claimed, was genuinely fearful of an earthquake in the general staff and army if Gallant’s dismissal is implemented.

On Wednesday night, Gallant came to Deri’s home in Jerusalem and sat there almost all night. He wants to stay on in his role, but Netanyahu won’t forgive.

(left to right) Yoav Gallant, Aryeh Deri, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yariv Levin and others during a Knesset plenum session on forming the government, in Jerusalem, December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri and Gallant discussed different formats for an apology that could win over the prime minister’s heart. Meanwhile, Netanyahu sat with Economy Minister Nir Barkat, and according to some reports, also spoke with him about the defense portfolio.

Deri can’t say if Gallant will remain as defense minister, but if he doesn’t, the rift between the Shas chair and Netanyahu will only deepen. Deri is also mad at Netanyahu for not informing him of his intention to fire Gallant ahead of time.

This political term began with an ongoing honeymoon between the two. Deri was appointed health and interior minister and was considered the most influential cabinet figure in relation to Netanyahu. Then, the High Court handed down its decision, saying the Shas leader’s minister appointment was unreasonable in the extreme given his recidivist criminal past, and Netanyahu was forced to fire Deri.

Deri wanted to be alternate prime minister, but Netanyahu refused to give him that role. Last week, Deri gave up any chance of returning to the government through “Deri Law Two,” barring the court from intervening in ministerial appointments, which had not yet passed its second and third readings in the Knesset. Now Deri has also decided to quit the cabinet in fury.

Deri is full of criticism of the cabinet. The whole judicial overhaul process seems somewhat delusional to him. The coalition’s composition worries him to the point of existential anxiety.

Deri supports the negotiating process spearheaded by President Isaac Herzog but does not have much hope for it. If the talks fail, it will be necessary, in his opinion, to recalculate the course and submit the legislation in a more moderate, weighted, and better-explained manner.

“We won’t gain anything if everyone goes out to the streets. The country is falling apart,” Deri’s associates said Thursday. “The path of [Justice Minister] Yariv Levin failed, this is clear. In an examination of the results, [former justice minister] Ayelet Shaked was way more efficient.”

Update: Deri’s office on Friday afternoon issued a statement denying the accuracy of this article. The Times of Israel and Zman Yisrael stand by the story. 

This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language site, Zman Yisrael.

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