Deri said pushing for alternate PM role in talks with Netanyahu after court ruling

Likud-led coalition scrambles to find a new position for Shas leader, disqualified by High Court from serving as minister

Aryeh Deri attends a special session of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Dec. 29, 2022. (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP)
Aryeh Deri attends a special session of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Dec. 29, 2022. (Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP)

Shas leader Aryeh Deri is pushing to be appointed alternate prime minister in ongoing talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, days after the ultra-Orthodox party chief was disqualified by the High Court of Justice from serving as a cabinet minister over his repeated criminal convictions.

Deri and Netanyahu have been holding discussions and mulling their next move, according to a Channel 12 report on Thursday, in hopes of coming up with an alternative high-ranking role for the Shas leader, who’d been appointed health and interior minister in the new government, sworn in just last month. The report said Netanyahu and Deri want to have a plan in place before Deri officially resigns, as demanded by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara earlier Thursday, or is fired, but disagreements between the two on the best path forward remain.

Public broadcaster Kan reported that Netanyahu plans to fire Deri sometime over the weekend and will have to announce a replacement.

According to the Channel 12 report, Deri has asked to be appointed alternate PM and has insisted on his continued participation in the security cabinet, while Netanyahu has proposed a number of other avenues, including the Knesset speaker role, which Deri is said to have refused. The TV report said the premier has also offered to pass legislation that would limit the High Court’s right to intervene on ministerial appointments — a move that the court could also block — as the coalition scrambles to find a way to bypass the court’s decision Wednesday and give Deri a high-ranking position.

Making Deri alternate premier is also a longshot and implementing it would be complex and risky, since it could end with Deri being disqualified from serving even as a Knesset member.

Appointing Deri as an alternate PM would require the government to pass a no-confidence motion against itself and form a new, power-sharing government. However, since the High Court has never ruled whether a convicted criminal can be appointed to the role, the matter is likely to come before the judges.

The court could condition the appointment on a Central Election Committee ruling on whether Deri’s tax offense conviction from last year — which earned him a suspended sentence in a plea bargain — carries “moral turpitude.” Such a designation would mean he could not hold any public office for seven years.

In such a scenario, which is not unlikely, Deri would automatically cease being a Knesset member and be downgraded even further.

The role of alternate prime minister was created in 2020 by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz for their short-lived power-sharing government and was also utilized by the subsequent government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which was replaced last month. Netanyahu and his new hardline government have vowed to nix the legal option of having an alternative prime minister, arguing that there should be only one national leader.

Deri is a key coalition partner in Netanyahu’s hardline government as well as a long-time confidant of the prime minister.

According to reports in the Hebrew-language press, if all else fails, Netanyahu is said to be weighing the possibility of having Deri serve as an “observer” in the security cabinet, a panel of top ministers charged with making decisions regarding Israel’s military posture, diplomatic relations and other matters of crucial state importance.

Netanyahu could also consider convening a so-called “kitchen cabinet,” a small inner security cabinet, in which Deri would take part, Channel 12 reported. The inner cabinet is charged with launching wars or major military operations, pursuing ceasefires or other diplomatic initiatives and dealing with sensitive intelligence matters. Before its creation in 2001, prime ministers would convene ad hoc war cabinets during national emergencies, including Golda Meir’s famous Kitchen Cabinet during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

On Wednesday, the High Court ruled 10-1 that Deri’s dual appointments as health and interior minister were “unreasonable in the extreme” in light of his recent and past financial crimes, and that Deri had misled a magistrate’s court into thinking he would retire from political life in order to evade a determination that his recent tax fraud conviction carried “moral turpitude.”

Deri was also convicted and incarcerated for taking bribes during a previous stint as interior minister in the 1990s.

Though Shas and the coalition partners anticipated the ruling, government members have said 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.

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