Court unlikely to strike down bill aimed at clearing Deri’s return as minister — TV

But report says justices may block Shas chief’s ministerial return after his tax conviction; AG said likely to rule override clause unconstitutional if it requires only 61 votes

Shas leader Aryeh Deri at the Knesset on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Shas leader Aryeh Deri at the Knesset on December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The High Court of Justice is not expected to strike down a bill that would allow Shas chief Aryeh Deri to return as a minister following his conviction for tax offenses earlier this year, according to a television report Friday.

However, the Kan public broadcaster said judicial officials believe there is a high chance that the court may still block Deri from becoming a minister on grounds of “acceptability.”

Deri, a top ally of presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was given a suspended prison sentence in January after admitting to tax crimes as part of a plea deal that saw him resign from the Knesset, enabling him to dodge a conviction carrying “moral turpitude,” which would have barred him from returning to office for several years.

He received a lenient sentence after the judge was falsely convinced he intended to step down from politics altogether. In its sentencing 10 months ago, the court noted that any concern that Deri might in future again “harm the public coffers” was assuaged by the “certainty” that he would have no further dealings with matters of “public economic interest since he will be distanced from the public sphere.”

As current law makes it difficult for a lawmaker who receives a suspended prison sentence to be appointed to a ministerial post, the expected new right-religious coalition is advancing legislation to let individuals who have not served active prison terms over the past seven years be appointed ministers. If passed, it would, in principle, enable Deri to again become a minister without needing to appeal to the Central Elections Committee, as Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has said he must.

On Thursday, the bill cleared the first of the three plenum readings it must pass to become law.

Despite criticism of the proposal — which will require a change to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws — the Kan public broadcaster reported that the High Court is not expected to rule it’s unconstitutional.

Illustrative: The High Court of Justice holds a hearing on October 20, 2022.(Fitoussi/Flash90)

But even if the court upholds the legislation, the report said the justices may still decide to prevent Deri from becoming a minister, noting a 2015 decision clearing his return to the Interior Ministry in which the justices described the appointment as “borderline acceptable,” in light of his 1999 conviction for bribery and breach of trust for actions taken while helming the ministry.

Deri went on to serve 22 months in prison and received a political timeout due to the designation of moral turpitude. He returned to politics and was reelected to the Shas list in 2013.

Under an agreement between Shas and Netanyahu’s Likud party, Deri is slated to initially serve as interior and health minister in the next government, before later taking over at the Finance Ministry.

Ahead of the November 1 election that saw Netanyahu’s bloc win a majority of the Knesset seats, Deri said that if the court prevents his return as a minister, Shas and its partners will legislate a so-called override clause allowing lawmakers to overturn High Court rulings.

The controversial proposal is expected to be included in the coalition deal that Netanyahu is working to finalize with his allies.

According to an unsourced Channel 12 news report Friday, Baharav-Miara is expected to rule the clause is unconstitutional if only 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members are required to reverse a High Court decision, rather than a higher threshold.

The report also said Baharav-Miara has said privately that she does not intend to resign, even in the case of a clash with Netanyahu or other ministers.

Baharav-Miara, who was appointed by the outgoing government, has already been criticized by members of the likely new coalition, including prominent far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir and Likud lawmakers.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks at Tel Aviv Univerisity, September 28, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Separately, the network said that in addition to the high-level security cabinet, Netanyahu wants to set up a smaller ministerial forum that would also include Deri and Likud MK Yoav Gallant, who is expected to be defense minister.

This “kitchen cabinet” — as an ad hoc meeting convened by then-prime minister Golda Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War was called — would allow Netanyahu to avoid potential opposition from non-Likud members of the security cabinet, such as Ben Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich.

The TV report said Smotrich was objecting to such a forum on the grounds that it must include the finance minister, a position he is expected to have in the next government.

Meanwhile, both Channel 12 and Kan said Netanyahu on Tuesday will inform President Isaac Herzog that he has put together a government, ahead of a December 21 deadline to negotiate a coalition.

Netanyahu will then reportedly take another week before swearing in the government, giving his bloc time to finish legislating the bill allowing Deri to become a minister and several other contentious changes demanded by the Likud leader’s coalition partners. He also must hand out ministerial posts to Likud members.

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