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Ruling on petitions expected in the coming days

Shas MK: High Court judges ‘shooting themselves in the head’ if they disqualify Deri

Avraham Bezalel denies his remarks on party leader’s contested ministerial role are a threat, amid government plans to sharply curtail judiciary’s powers

Shas MK Avraham Bezalel at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem ahead of the opening session of the 25th Knesset, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas MK Avraham Bezalel at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem ahead of the opening session of the 25th Knesset, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A member of the Shas party said Tuesday that any decision by the High Court of Justice to disqualify party leader Aryeh Deri from serving as a minister would mean the court’s justices are “shooting themselves in the head.”

Shas MK Avraham Bezalel made the apparently threatening remarks during an interview with the Knesset Channel ahead of an expected High Court ruling on whether Deri is fit to serve as a minister in the new government. The decision is expected to be published in the next few days.

According to reports, the court is expected to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Deri as interior and health minister in the new government is “extremely unreasonable” in light of Deri’s three past convictions, including one last year for tax offenses that landed him a suspended sentence.

Bezalel’s interview seemingly alluded to plans by the hardline government to overhaul the judiciary — including by canceling the court’s right to invoke the legal “reasonableness” measure expected to be used against Deri, as well as giving the coalition the power to appoint justices, radically limit the court’s power to strike down legislation, and appoint ministries’ legal advisers.

“I think that in the end, if [the judges] rule to disqualify him, they are shooting themselves, even in the head I’d say,” Bezalel said.

“They are aware of the current sensitivity, they understand what the public thinks. We’re aware of the protests and see what’s happening in the streets over the past few weeks in light of the whole situation,” he added.

Asked whether his remarks were intended as a threat to the High Court justices, Bezalel said: “I don’t think this is threatening at all. I have no doubt this is on the table.” He didn’t clarify those remarks.

Minister Aryeh Deri attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Later Tuesday, following a public outcry over his remarks, Bezalel said that his words were misunderstood.

“As someone to whom public trust in the justice system is important, I meant to say that if the High Court decision nullifies the choice of more than 400,000 citizens [who voted for Shas], it would significantly harm public trust in the court,” he said in a statement.

In a faction meeting Monday, Deri asked Shas MKs to escalate their rhetoric against the possibility that he will be disqualified and to highlight that such a ruling would “harm [Shas] voters, not me,” according to Hebrew media reports.

He reportedly added: “The public elected me, not the Supreme Court justices.”

Deri said during the meeting that he will not resign even if the court rules against him, according to a Channel 13 report.

If Deri refuses to resign, it will likely fall to Netanyahu to fire him. Should the prime minister, who is himself on trial in a trio of graft cases, refuse to do so, the unprecedented rejection of the ruling would likely prompt fresh petitions to the High Court demanding he be compelled to dismiss Deri, his most senior coalition partner.

“To fire me or not — it’s Netanyahu’s business,” Deri was quoted as saying.

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)

The High Court petitions argue that Deri’s 2022 conviction, coupled with a conviction in 1999 on bribery charges for which he served prison time, makes his appointment as minister “unreasonable.”

If the court does rule against him, the coalition reportedly hopes to pass a law within some two months to allow Deri to return as minister.

A poll this month indicated that less than a quarter of Israelis support Deri’s appointment. The Channel 12 survey found 65 percent of respondents opposed it, 22% supported it, and 13% were unsure.

Among supporters of Netanyahu’s bloc, 43% said it was not appropriate for Deri to serve as a minister, while 42% said it was.

Michael Bachner contributed to this report. 

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