Furious coalition vows to return Deri to office after court rules he can’t serve

Likud-led government says near-unanimous court disqualification an ‘injustice’ to convicted Shas leader; coalition members vow to push forward with plans to overhaul judiciary

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri during the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Knesset, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri during the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Knesset, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing lawmakers from the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the High Court of Justice’s dramatic, near-unanimous ruling on Wednesday striking down Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s appointment to the roles of interior minister and health minister, saying the decision justified the government’s contentious plans to radically overhaul Israel’s judicial and legal system and restrict the court’s powers.

In their 10-1 ruling on Wednesday, the judges said Deri’s appointment was “unreasonable in the extreme” due to his multiple convictions for corruption charges. They also cited “the position Deri presented to the Magistrate’s Court that convicted him of these charges, in which he said he was quitting politics, and his conduct thereafter.”

Deri, who previously served jail time for an earlier graft conviction, pleaded guilty to the tax charges last year 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 right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox government, Deri then reentered Knesset as head of Shas’s 11-seat faction in November. In December, the coalition fast-tracked legislation to smooth his way into holding the interior and health ministry posts.

Shas and its coalition partners anticipated the ruling, but it still dealt a blow to the hardline coalition formed late last month by Netanyahu. A senior member of Shas warned earlier Wednesday that if Deri was disqualified, the Likud-led coalition might be in jeopardy.

Netanyahu visited Deri’s home in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening to discuss the next steps following the ruling. The coalition is said to already have a the government’s planned course of action” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>planned course of action, including expediting its legislative efforts to annul the “reasonableness” consideration, which allows courts to rule that certain actions or decisions are void due to being unreasonable in the extreme. “Reasonableness” was invoked by the justices in nixing Deri’s ministerial appointment, but five justices also advanced the legal principle of estoppel, determining that the Shas leader had indicated as part of his plea bargain that he was quitting public life, but did the opposite.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin has proposed legislation to cancel the reasonability test, and coalition sources said the ruling would likely lead the coalition to accelerate this, or another solution, to restore Deri’s status as a minister.

Before the ruling, the Shas leader had reportedly vowed to defy it and refuse to resign. On Wednesday, Channel 12 reported that Deri could consider appointing Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov as health minister in his stead. Bar Siman-Tov became well known in Israel for leading the ministry as director-general during the first months of the coronavirus crisis. He stepped down in June 2020 and was recently reappointed to the role by Deri.

Moments after the ruling, Levin — a senior Likud member and Netanyahu confidant who is spearheading the coalition’s judicial overhaul — called the court’s decision “absurd” and said that it “tramples not only on the votes of nearly 400,000 Shas voters, but also on the votes of the majority of Israeli citizens, who knew all relevant facts and voted for a government headed by Netanyahu, in which Aryeh Deri is a senior partner.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri (left), and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (right) during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin said he regrets that the court “failed to respect the decision of the people, the judgment of the prime minister, and the decision of the Knesset that expressed confidence in the current government,” and vowed to “do everything necessary so that this injustice — that screams to heaven — against Rabbi Aryeh Deri, the Shas party and Israeli democracy, is fully corrected.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement following the ruling that it views Deri as a “central and significant” part of the government and vowed to return him to office.

Released in the name of all coalition party chairs, the statement argued that the court disqualification was an “injustice” both to Deri and to the about 2 million voters who elected to return Netanyahu to power in November, backed by his far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and the Noam faction.

“Deri’s extraordinary abilities and vast experience are needed by the State of Israel in these complex days more than ever,” the Likud statement continued.

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)

Following the High Court’s ruling, the petitioner in the case, the Movement for Quality Government, said Netanyahu should “respect the ruling and dismiss Deri,” adding that “the government was “not a rehabilitation facility for criminals.”

The NGO said the decision was “an important step toward maintaining the rule of law, and a victory for the entire Israeli public.”

But harsh criticism of the ruling kept coming in from coalition members.

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana of Likud said the court should not have intervened on an issue he described as entirely under the jurisdiction of parliament.

“Now the legislative branch will have its say,” he said, in an apparent threat to take action to curtail the court’s power.

The Shas party, meanwhile, called the court ruling “political” while also touting the “will of Shas’s 400,000 voters” in the November elections.

“Today, the court effectively ruled that the elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and tainted with extreme unreasonability,” read the statement.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri seen at a meeting of the healthcare basket committee, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on January 18, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The entire Shas movement is appalled by the arbitrary and unprecedented decision of the High Court of Justice, in contravention of law and justice, and sees it as a serious violation of the right to vote and to be elected, which is the lifeblood of democracy,” the party said, promising to consult with its guiding rabbis as to how to address the court decision. “Broad sections of Israeli society today feel excluded by the court,” Shas’s statement read.

Deri himself issued a statement calling the ruling a “clear injustice” that shows “the need for a change in the current legal system.”

“This ruling will become the catalyst for significant legislative changes to create the required balances in the legal system,’ he added.

Fellow ultra-Orthodox party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, head of United Torah Judaism, tied the High Court of Justice’s disqualification of Deri to the erosion of public trust in the judicial system.

Goldknopf said that the disqualification was “another tangible example of what created the crisis of trust between Israeli citizens and the judicial system.”

Pledging his UTJ party will “support all legislative procedures required” to return Deri to power, Goldknopf said that “hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens clearly expressed their trust in Rabbi Deri,” by voting for Shas in the recent elections, “and their desire to see him serve as a minister in the government.”

The Degel HaTorah party, part of UTJ, said it will also support legislation to restore Deri to his ministerial appointments and blamed the High Court of Justice for intervening in a matter where “it has no authority.”

United Torah Judaism leader and Minister of Housing and Construction, Yitzhak Goldknopf, arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Once again the court intervenes in matters in which has no authority after the Knesset enacted a Basic Law,” the party wrote in a statement, referring to the rapid Basic Law: The Government fix the coalition legislated in December to pave Deri’s ministerial appointments, in light of his recent tax fraud conviction.

“The High Court drills down on again and again and meddles in things that are not theirs. We will support all the legislative procedures required for Rabbi Aryeh Deri to serve in the government,” Degel HaTorah said.

Avi Maoz, head of the far-right Noam faction, charged that the court “has once again placed itself above the law.”

“Today, more than ever, everyone understands: judicial reform is necessary for the continued existence of Israeli democracy,” he added.

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. He added that such a government would lose the right to demand that citizens obey the law, and Israel “will be thrust into an unprecedented constitutional crisis and will no longer be a democracy.”

Labor chief Merav Michaeli said that “certainly the court’s decision is difficult for many citizens,” but in a democracy, a court’s ruling is respected by the right and the left.

“Netanyahu and Deri must show responsibility and respect the ruling,” said Michaeli.

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