ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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In first media appearances since firing, Deri pledges to return to government office

Shas head claims he wasn’t paying attention during hearing when judge said he’d agreed to exit public service, says court should have nixed plea deal if it thought he was insincere

Shas leader Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas leader Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas leader Aryeh Deri said Thursday that he intends to return to the government soon, making the declaration during his first series of interviews since he was fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday after the High Court of Justice ruled last week that the recently convicted lawmaker could not serve in a ministerial position.

“I’ll be back as a minister when the Knesset passes legislation [allowing for it]. Whether that’s in two weeks, one month, or two months,” he told Channel 12.

Deri was appointed health and interior minister when Netanyahu’s new hardline government was sworn in last month. Last week, however, the High Court ruled that granting the Shas chief a cabinet post was “unreasonable in the extreme,” due both to his past criminal convictions and his promise last year to withdraw from political life as part of a plea bargain that he ostensibly did not honor. Netanyahu agreed to comply with the court’s ruling but wrote in his decision that he was doing so with “a heavy heart.”

Deri told the Kan public broadcaster that he was “paying the price” for being Netanyahu’s political ally, claiming rivals were determined to weaken the premier by targeting his right-wing, religious, and far-right coalition partners.

Meanwhile, the Shas chairman said the coalition was working to advance legislation that will allow for him to return to office while acknowledging that the High Court could well strike down that bill as well. Deri denied reports that he had demanded to be named alternate prime minister after being stripped of his two other titles. (Such an appointment would likely have been challenged in court as well.)

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Shas faction meeting in Knesset, January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri, in his TV interviews, denied lying to the judges at a sentencing hearing last year when he pled guilty to tax offenses. The judges gave him a suspended sentence, thinking he was stepping down from public service completely. But Deri claimed he only agreed to resign temporarily from the Knesset so that he could run again several months later with the goal of returning to the cabinet as well.

However, Deri during his sentencing indicated that his resignation would be long-term, if not permanent. He then remained in court as the prosecutor requested a lenient sentence because of the Shas leader’s willingness to “retire from public life.”

One of the presiding judges expressed his agreement with the prosecution, saying that a more lenient sentence was warranted because Deri had taken the difficult decision to quit politics for good.

Asked why he didn’t object when the judge made those comments if he wasn’t trying to trick the court, Deri told Channel 13 that he had been overwhelmed by the weight of the hearing and didn’t hear the justice’s remarks.

Still, he insisted that the prosecution could have demanded the cancellation of the plea agreement the next day, when he held a press conference and declared his intention to continue leading Shas.

The law does not bar a recently convicted lawmaker from leading a party or returning to the Knesset, rather from becoming a minister.

Deri also told Channel 12 that if his appointment were as “extremely unreasonable” as seven High Court justices maintained in their ruling last week, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara should have warned Netanyahu before he appointed the Shas chairman as minister. He claimed that Netanyahu met with the attorney general to discuss the appointment and that she did not issue an objection.

Critics of Deri’s conduct have maintained that if he was serious about returning to government without violating the law, he would have requested a hearing before the Central Elections Committee (CEC) before the November 1 Knesset election for the panel to determine whether his suspended sentence carries moral turpitude. Such a designation would have barred him from office for seven years. The law does not differentiate between a suspended sentence and time served, though Deri insisted that he had received legal advice assuring him that the suspended sentence he had received was not enough to bar him from returning to government.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri attends a hearing in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, January 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Still, he told Channel 12 Thursday that he chose not to request a CEC hearing because Netanyahu had decided against it and ultimately it was the Likud leader’s decision to make. Deri told Channel 13, though, that the real reason was that he didn’t want to be seen as seeking a confrontation with the legal system.

“After six years of legal torture… you understand why it is forbidden to go to court,” he told the network, blasting the legal system for dragging out his proceedings in what placed a major strain on him and his family, he said.

“What do I need to apologize for? They need to ask me for forgiveness,” Deri said.

Deri confirmed reports that he had opposed the timing of Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s announcement of the new government’s planned judicial overhaul on the eve of a High Court hearing on the petitions seeking to disqualify him from serving in the cabinet.

However, he maintained on all three major networks that Levin’s press conference was not what ultimately influenced the judges and that he does not hold a grudge against the justice minister since Levin’s motives were unrelated to the Shas chairman’s ruling.

Deri also insisted that his effort to return to the cabinet would not risk destabilizing the government.

He explained that Shas Welfare Minister Ya’akov Margi’s earlier warning that there could be no government without Deri was said “out of the pain in his heart.”

Still, he told Channel 12 he has no intention of giving up since the government has “an enormous goal” to preserve Israel’s Jewish identity and help its most disadvantaged citizens. Critics argue that Shas’s opposition to mandating ultra-Orthodox youth receive a secular education contributes to continued poverty for its constituents.

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