Mobbed by supporters and backed by coalition leaders, Shas head Aryeh Deri promised Wednesday night to defy a landmark High Court ruling disqualifying the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker from serving as minister in the new hardline government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In rejecting Deri’s appointment as interior and health minister, the bench ruled 10-1 on Wednesday that the cabinet posting was “unreasonable in the extreme” due to the Shas leader’s multiple convictions for corruption charges, and cited his reneged pledge to quit politics following the most recent legal proceedings against him last year.
With the coalition scrambling for a way around the decision that would allow Deri to remain part of the coalition, the lawmaker released a statement Wednesday night saying he would find a way to continue to serve in the government.
“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.”
Deri, who previously served jail time for an earlier graft conviction, pleaded guilty to the tax charges in 2022 as part of a plea deal in which he resigned from the Knesset and received a suspended prison sentence. A key ally in Netanyahu’s right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox government, Deri returned to the Knesset as head of Shas’s 11-seat faction in November. Last month, the coalition fast-tracked legislation to smooth his way into holding the interior and health ministry posts.
Deri joined others in pointing to the ruling as injecting new urgency into controversial legislation pursued by the government that would defang the court’s ability to strike down government decisions.
“It’s good that they said their piece and it’s good that it ended as it did, with 10 against one. Let the people see and judge.” he said.
In the hours after the ruling, a steady stream of politicians, rabbis and other dignitaries, including Netanyahu, made their way to one of Deri’s homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof. A few hundred supporters who gathered outside Deri’s home cheered for the Shas leader when he briefly emerged following the meeting.
Netanyahu’s office said he told Deri during their meeting: “When my brother is in distress, I come to him.” No further details of their discussions were provided.
Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who had arrived for a short visit, was met with boos from some Deri fans outside the home. Ohana’s appointment, as an openly gay man, has incensed some in ultra-Orthodox communities.
Senior government members, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, also met with Deri following his disqualification from office.
At a meeting with Shas members at his Jerusalem home, multiple outlets quoted Deri as saying: “It’s all good. I have no doubt that something good will come of this. We will learn about the subject in the coming days and decide what to do.”
Though Shas and its coalition partners anticipated the ruling, government members told the Ynet news site that they were unprepared for its gravity, expecting justices to rely purely on the test of “reasonableness” to disqualify Deri from a ministerial position. This allows courts to rule that certain actions or decisions are void due to being unreasonable in the extreme.
In addition to the “reasonableness” test, the court, however, also indicated that Deri could not walk back his claim that he would quit the Knesset, and ostensibly politics, as part of his plea deal due to the legal principle of estoppel, which prohibits parties to legal suits from changing claims in different proceedings.
The use of the estoppel argument may prevent the decision from being overridden by the government, if it advances legislation to annul the “reasonableness” consideration and try to keep Deri in the cabinet.
The ruling was a blow for Netanyahu’s government, with a senior member of Shas warning earlier Wednesday that if Deri is disqualified, the Likud-led coalition might be in jeopardy.
Coalition officials told the Walla news site that the best option for keeping Deri in the cabinet was to appoint him alternate prime minister, which would require a constructive no-confidence measure in the Knesset and a new swearing-in ceremony for the government.
Such an appointment may not necessarily overcome legal challenges either, according to reports in the Hebrew media. Netanyahu said at the opening of his first cabinet meeting last month that there would be no role of alternate prime minister in the government.
On Wednesday, Channel 12 reported that Deri could consider appointing Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov as health minister in his stead. Bar Siman-Tov became well known in Israel for leading the ministry as director-general during the first months of the coronavirus crisis. He stepped down in June 2020 and was recently reappointed to the role by Deri.
According to Kan, there are several candidates to take over the Interior Ministry, including former Shas MK Ariel Atias, Deri’s son Yanki, and Shas MK Moshe Arbel.
Right-wing lawmakers responded with fury to the High Court ruling. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a senior Likud member and Netanyahu confidant who is spearheading the coalition’s judicial overhaul — called the court’s decision “absurd,” and said it “tramples” on the votes of Israelis.
Opposition party leaders, meanwhile, joined calls for Netanyahu to respect the High Court’s ruling.
“If Aryeh Deri isn’t fired, the government will be breaking the law,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid, warning of an “unprecedented constitutional crisis” if the government did not adhere to the ruling.