Reform caused 'huge trauma,' fears of a 'new type of regime'

Deri: Coalition shouldn’t force overhaul through Knesset, ignoring intense opposition

Shas chief insists he doesn’t plan cabinet return; admits powerful protest movement has hindered judicial shakeup, was spawned by government’s hardline nature and rhetoric

Shas chair Aryeh Deri arrives at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Shas chair Aryeh Deri arrives at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri said in an interview Wednesday that the government should not charge ahead with more laws from its judicial overhaul plan without consideration for the intense opposition and the persistent mass protests the steps have drawn.

In an interview with the Haredi news site, Kikar Hashabbat, the ultra-Orthodox Knesset member acknowledged that the hardline nature of the current government helped spawn the robust protest movement against the overhaul, admitted that the demonstrations have hindered the planned sweeping reform, and conceded that he would not be returning to the cabinet anytime soon.

Deri, who has shown little appetite for conflict with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent years, offered relatively strong support for an overhaul compromise, now seemingly backed by Netanyahu, but claimed there was nobody in the opposition to negotiate with.

“It has been a very tough year with the reform and the protests — I don’t remember anything like it — but we need to be able to deal with it,” Deri said.

Asked whether the overhaul’s legislation had been thwarted by the protest movement, Deri said: “Of course the protests stopped the pace of legislation that was intended.

“There is now no advancement at all of the judicial reform,” he acknowledged, adding that there were negotiations with the opposition about passing limited bits of the overhaul alongside a substantial freeze of the rest of the bills.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, in an interview with the Haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat, September 13, 2023 (Screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“Should we use our majority of 64 seats and advance this reform and say, ‘We were elected by the public,’ and not take the minority into account? I think not,” he said.

However, he added, “I haven’t yet seen a leader in the opposition — not [National Unity party leader Benny] Gantz or [party members Gadi] Eisenkot or [Gideon] Sa’ar — come and say there is a great danger here, and we are coming and entering the [negotiations] room.”

Shas party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (center), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, at the Knesset on November 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In 2019, Deri famously gave his personal guarantee to Gantz that Netanyahu would honor a power-sharing coalition deal between the two which Gantz had put his political neck on the line in order to sign. Netanyahu later did not honor that agreement, making it clear he was planning to exploit a loophole in the agreement to call early elections, rather than let Gantz get a turn at the premiership, and prompting the latter to dissolve the government. Deri failed to intervene.

If no agreement is reached soon with the opposition, Deri said the coalition should unilaterally advance what it estimates to have likely been agreed upon had the compromise talks succeeded — including some sort of legislation freeze.

“The Haredi parties support the prime minister on a freeze or a settlement on the reform… we too have a responsibility to calm the spirits,” he said.

Deri acknowledged serious issues with the way the process had gone so far, though he indicated that better PR could have changed that.

“It’s clear that the protests gave us a different viewpoint,” he said. “Look, the easiest thing is to say ‘I have a majority and I’m voting.’ But anyone who has responsibility must look at the full picture, what’s happening here, around the world, in the military, and understand the source of these fears… We probably didn’t know how to market this correctly.”

Protesters rally against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation, in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023. (Gitai Palti)

“The shape the reform took, the makeup of the government and the comments by all sorts of people who led this reform caused very many people to experience fear. It created huge trauma as if there is an intentional plan to create a new type of regime here,” he said.

However, Deri also refused to commit to honoring High Court rulings on legislation related to the overhaul. Many in the coalition have refused to do so regarding the potential annulment of the reasonableness law, the first and so far only overhaul law to be passed.

Deri also claimed he was no longer pursuing a return to the cabinet, a day after the coalition went to the mat with the High Court to defend the reasonableness, highly controversial legislation that was thought to be partially intended to pave his way back.

Deri noted that he has not moved to rejoin the government since the coalition passed the law in July, shackling the court’s ability to declare his appointment unreasonable. (The court also cited other considerations when it voided his appointment in January, meaning rejoining could still be difficult).

“I could use it, we voided [the reasonableness test], but no, categorically no,” he said, adding that he also would not be pursuing a new version of the so-called Deri law, which had been meant to keep the court off his back.

That bill, an amendment to Basic Law: The Government, would prohibit all courts from exercising judicial review over ministerial appointments.

President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut (center) and colleagues hold a hearing on petitions demanding they block the return of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as a minister due to his recent conviction and suspended sentence for tax offenses, at the High Court in Jerusalem, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri’s appointment as interior and health minister was shot down in January, when judges ruled that appointing a man with multiple criminal convictions for financial offenses as a minister was “unreasonable in the extreme.” It also said Deri had previously misled a court into believing he would leave public life in order to secure a plea deal in his latest trial, and the justices also cited this, nullifying the appointment under the doctrine of “estoppel.”

Rather than rejoin the government, Deri said he would work on internal party campaigning, saying the party has five fine ministers.

“I have no interest in returning to the cabinet or government,” he said.

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