Aryeh Deri, the head of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is set to return to the post of interior minister, some 16 years after a corruption conviction ended his tenure and put him behind bars for nearly two years.
The government is expected to approve the appointment at its next meeting, Channel 2 TV reported Tuesday.
Deri, 56, will replace the former Likud interior minister and vice prime minister Silvan Shalom, who resigned from the Knesset nine days ago as pressure mounted over an increasing number of allegations of sexual harassment by women who had worked with him.
The Shas chief will also retain his current position as minister for the development of the periphery, Negev and Galilee.
Deri headed Shas until he was convicted in 1999 of accepting $155,000 in bribes while running the Interior Ministry. He served 22 months in prison.
In 2012, he returned to politics and reclaimed the leadership of his ultra-Orthodox party, after staying out of politics for the seven years required for those found guilty of a crime entailing moral turpitude.
In March this year, as the possibility of Deri’s return to a ministerial position surfaced, a petition posted online called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from accepting Deri into his government and to prevent him from re-assuming a ministerial position, owing to his criminal record.
The petition, which garnered more than 11,000 signatures, expressed “concern and outrage at the casual and natural manner in which politicians are now discussing the appointment of Aryeh Deri to interior minister in Netanyahu’s fourth government — the same job he once held and in which he carried out crimes.”
Deri was found guilty by the Jerusalem District Court after a drawn-out, five-year trial on one set of charges. He appealed the decision, and while some charges against him were dropped, the appellate court found that Deri had also received $60,000, free vacations abroad, a free one-night visit to a Jerusalem hotel and another unknown sum of money that was deposited in his family members’ bank accounts.
He was sentenced to a three-year prison term, but served only 22 months in Maasiyahu prison, winning an early release for good behavior.
Upon his release, however, Deri was then prosecuted for the second case against him. The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court found Deri guilty of violating public trust when, in just one instance, he worked to allocate NIS 400,000 for the creation of a beit midrash — a Jewish house of learning — in Jerusalem that was named for his father- and mother-in-law.
At the time, the court found that Deri “worked against the interests of his public position in favor of his personal ones, and should have stopped himself from handling an issue that dealt with his family members.”
Deri was found guilty and sentenced to three months’ probation and an NIS 10,000 ($2,570) fine.
In May this year, on the day the Knesset approved Netanyahu’s new government, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein issued a decision, first published by the Ynet news site, which said there was “no legal impediment” to Deri’s appointment as a government minister.
However, Weinstein wrote: “This is a decision that arouses legal difficulties due to Deri’s onerous criminal past and the harm to the public’s trust in the administration’s morality and the correctness of its actions, which Deri’s appointment as a minister is liable to cause.”
Even more potentially damning, Weinstein added, was that Deri was not “someone who has recognized his sins and taken responsibility for his actions.”
Weinstein added: “There is a need to balance the clear public interest in retaining the correct moral standards of public candidates with the interests of [sectoral] representation — the desire to allow the public to be represented by their elected officials.”
But, Weinstein wrote, the “clean” appearance of the candidate for a ministerial position was of even greater importance.
While the Basic Law governing the Knesset only restricts the appointment of a minister for seven years after a jail sentence, the last Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation discussed an amendment that would remove the seven-year limit on the restriction, making it illegal to ever appoint a minister who had been convicted of a crime while serving in the Knesset or the government, Weinstein said.
This law did not move forward as the government was dissolved just a few days later.
Days after Weinstein issued his opinion, the nonprofit Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to issue a temporary injunction against the appointments of Deri and Yoav Galant (now construction minister for the Kulanu Party) as ministers in the new government.
In August, the Supreme Court ruled: “The truth must be told, the required balance in our case between opposed considerations places us in a complex and difficult bind. However, the appointment of Deri can be considered borderline acceptable, in light of the various elements which have been described and given the weight of the discretion of the prime minister in these matters, we have found no cause to intervene.”
Last month, Deri resigned as economy minister to allow the government to green-light a multi-billion dollar gas deal with US energy giant Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group. This ended a drawn-out affair during which Deri had refused to sign off on bypassing antitrust regulations regarding the deal.
Deri’s other portfolio, the Ministry for Development of the Negev and the Galilee, was subsequently expanded and renamed the Ministry for the Development of the Periphery, Negev and Galilee, to embrace all areas outside the economic center of the country.