Deri said likely to resign or be fired as minister while looking to bypass top court

TV says Shas chief, ultra-Orthodox party’s rabbinical leaders and Netanyahu believe they must honor ruling disqualifying him from cabinet; far-right minister urges: Defy decision

Shas chief Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on January 18, 2023, hours after the High Court ruled he cannot serve as a government minister. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas chief Aryeh Deri outside his home in Jerusalem on January 18, 2023, hours after the High Court ruled he cannot serve as a government minister. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shas chief Aryeh Deri’s tenure as interior and health minister is expected to end within days, Israeli television reported Wednesday, hours after the High Court of Justice disqualified the ultra-Orthodox party leader from serving as minister.

The Channel 12 news report said Deri, Shas’s rabbinic leadership council and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were all of the mind that they must honor the court’s decision. The network, which did not cite a source, noted it remained unclear if Deri would resign or be fired by Netanyahu.

Deri has not specified whether he will leave office after the 10-1 ruling by the High Court, which said his appointment as interior and health minister was “unreasonable in the extreme” because of his multiple convictions for corruption charges, also citing his reneged pledge to quit politics following the most recent legal proceedings against him last year.

A report over the weekend quoted Deri telling Shas lawmakers that he would not resign. In such a scenario, it will likely fall to Netanyahu to dismiss him.

Should Netanyahu, who is himself on trial in a trio of graft cases, refuse to do so, the unprecedented rejection of the ruling would likely prompt fresh petitions to the High Court demanding he be compelled to dismiss Deri, his most senior coalition partner.

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, a member of the coalition’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party, urged the government to defy the ruling.

“The court decision is irresponsible and influenced by narrow political interests,” he tweeted. “I call on my fellow cabinet members not to comply with the High Court ruling, as it is illegal.”

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2023 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a statement Wednesday night, Deri said 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 hard-right 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Jerusalem home of Aryeh Deri, after a High Court ruling disqualifying the Shas leader from office, January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At a meeting with Shas members, 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.

Shas party members attend a hearing on petitions demanding the annulment of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as a government minister due to his recent conviction on tax offenses, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on January 5, 2023 . (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Channel 12 said Wednesday that another option being considered was to have Deri replace Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who in turn would likely get a spot in the government.

Right-wing lawmakers have 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.

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