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The Media Line: Deri Dilemma Leaves Netanyahu Few Options, Experts Say

Deri Dilemma Leaves Netanyahu Few Options, Experts Say

With his interior and health minister disqualified due to previous criminal convictions, Israel’s prime minister may find his pledge to reinstate the Shas party leader hard to fulfill, Israeli legal pundits say

By Sara Miller/The Media Line

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu finds himself trapped between the country’s Supreme Court and a key coalition partner after the high court ruled that the veteran lawmaker cannot serve in the nascent government due to criminal convictions.

Netanyahu fired Shas party leader Aryeh Deri on Sunday, obeying a Supreme Court ruling from last week that his twin appointments as interior minister and health minister were “unreasonable in the extreme” because of his multiple corruption convictions. The most recent conviction – for tax offenses ؘ– came in February 2022, when Deri took a plea deal that included a suspended sentence and a hefty fine.

The prime minister said he was dismissing Deri with a “heavy heart,” vowing “to look for any legal way in which [Deri] can continue to contribute to the State of Israel.” Deri himself said after the firing that there had been “no doubt” that he and Netanyahu would abide by the court ruling.

On Monday, the prime minister and every other party leader in his coalition trooped over to the Shas faction meeting in a show of support for the beleaguered Deri. Netanyahu stationed himself next to the Shas leader, where he declared that Deri’s dismissal as minister was simply “for now.”

With just four Knesset seats keeping his coalition in the majority and him in the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu needs Deri and his 10 other lawmakers to avoid a collapse of his government and what then would be Israel’s sixth round of elections since April 2019.

Netanyahu would be happy simply giving the two positions Deri held to other Shas members, Irit Kohn, former director of the International Affairs Department at Israel’s Ministry of Justice, told The Media Line before an announcement to this effect was made Monday. However, she warned, this move will not be enough for Deri.

“I think that Deri [is] a burden on Bibi right now,” Kohn said, referring to the prime minister by his long-standing moniker. If Deri becomes too enraged at the situation, she said, “he can take his 11 [Knesset] members and leave the government.”

According to Yehuda Shaffer, former deputy state attorney of Israel, there is no way for Netanyahu to realistically strike down the court ruling, leaving him with one option: to renegotiate the coalition agreement, giving Deri a role that the courts will not be able to overturn.

“The only [path] they can pursue is to create a new government” in which Deri would be an alternate prime minister,” Shaffer told The Media Line. “And then the laws regarding disqualification don’t apply, so that’s one way of going around it.”

Professor Gad Barzilai, former dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, told The Media Line that the government has several options. It could “legislate a law which would overcome cases like Deri in a way which will allow Netanyahu to nominate him again,” or “nominate him as the head of the government coalition, which is not a ministerial function,” he said.

The other option, according to Barzilai, would be to try to nominate Deri as alternate prime minister, but he clarified that he does not see this as “constitutionally valid.”

“If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would say you cannot evade the high court ruling by nominating somebody to a more senior position,” Barzilai said. “So, I think that Netanyahu is now facing a severe constitutional difficulty to nominate Deri as a minister.”

Ahead of the ruling on his plea bargain last February, Deri told the court that he would be quitting politics, which some of the judges involved in Wednesday’s ruling believed swayed the deal he received and meant that he could not serve as minister today. Yet Deri insisted on Sunday that “it was clear to the former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that I have no intention and never had any intention and I did not commit to retiring from political life.”

This, he said, “was clear on the table from the start until the end” of the plea bargain discussions.

Deri’s appointments, which have caused political turmoil and threatened the stability of the coalition, may have been Netanyahu’s only option to regain the power he lost in the March 2021 elections, Barzilai believes.

“One feasible explanation is that Netanyahu wanted to establish a government and he actually had hardship in doing so,” he said, adding that the two men may have believed that “the courts might be hesitant to inflame a governmental crisis.”

As such, he said, “both Netanyahu and Deri took a conscious risk but, in any case, both understood that the only option to evade another round of elections would be to establish a government.”

In fact, Kohn says, Netanyahu and Deri would probably have had an easier time if they had simply gone to the Central Elections Committee after the results of the November 1, 2022 vote came in and tried to find a solution through dialogue, which would have required the body to agree that the offenses Deri was found guilty of did not amount to moral turpitude. Such a finding would have required him to remain outside of the Knesset for the next seven years, as he did until 2011 following the completion of a three-year prison sentence for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust for taking bribes.

“The way to do it was to go to the director of the elections committee to ask him… if the offense that [Deri] was tried with was an offense with moral turpitude. They didn’t do it. Why didn’t they do it? Because they were afraid of the judge [Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit] who is the head of the committee,” she said.

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