Jerusalem, 18 January, 2023 (TPS) — The Israeli Supreme Court disqualified Aryeh Deri from participating in the government, setting the stage for a political crisis that could potentially topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
Deri currently holds the dual roles of Minister of Interior and Health. He is also Vice Prime Minister and sits on the influential Security Cabinet.
“Deri was convicted of serious corruption offenses. The appointment clearly crosses the line of reasonableness,” Court President Esther Hayut wrote in the ruling.
Deri’s legal issues stem from a January 2022 plea agreement in which he admitted to underreporting the value of property sold to his brother to avoid paying a land tax. He also admitted failing to report income from the sales and evading a tax on 534,000 shekels ($150,770) of income by funneling payments from an investment fund to his brother.
As part of the plea agreement, Deri was given a suspended prison sentence and paid a fine of 180,000 shekels ($50,800).
Unresolved, however, was whether Deri’s plea agreement carried “moral turpitude,” a legal term loosely described as immoral, unethical behavior which gravely violates a community’s standards. In Israel, convictions carrying moral turpitude prohibit a person from running for public office for seven years. Judges have a certain discretion to decide whether individual cases carry moral turpitude, but a prison sentence almost always draws a label of moral turpitude by law.
Also unresolved was how long a hiatus from politics Deri would take.
When the Center-Left government headed by then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid collapsed in June, Deri returned to the campaign trail. Voters responded, giving Shas 11 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and with it, significant leverage in negotiations with Netanyahu in coalition negotiations.
As a precondition of joining the government, Shas insisted on — and ultimately got passed — legislation known as “the Deri Law” stating that moral turpitude does not apply to a suspended sentence.
Shas has 11 Knesset seats, making it Likud’s largest coalition partner. The right-wing coalition currently has 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
A statement issued by Shas called the ruling “a severe and stinging injury to all Shas voters and supporters.” The statement added that the next steps will be decided on by the party’s Council of Torah Sages.
Party officials signaled in recent days that they will quit the coalition if Deri cannot be in the government. On Tuesday, Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Yaacov Margi insisted that Deri would not resign if found unfit by the High Court. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented on whether he is prepared to fire Deri in that scenario.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to fire Deri, saying, “If Aryeh Deri is not fired, the Israeli government is breaking the law. A government that does not obey the law is an illegal government.”
The Movement for Quality Government, which filed the original petition against Deri also called on Netanyahu to fire Deri, saying the government “is not a rehabilitation facility for criminals,”
Deri was previously convicted in 2000 of accepting bribes while serving as Interior Minister. Due to good behavior, he served 22 months of a three-year sentence, leaving prison in 2002. Deri returned to the Knesset in 2013.