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Netanyahu fires Deri ‘with a heavy heart’ after High Court nixes convicted minister

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed top ally Aryeh Deri from the cabinet on Sunday, in a move expected to trigger political uncertainty despite being mandated by the High Court of Justice and advocated by the attorney general.

Netanyahu said that he was “compelled, with a heavy heart” to comply with Wednesday’s court ruling — which cited Deri’s multiple convictions and recent apparent deception of a lower court — and terminate Deri’s dual appointment as interior and health minister. The dismissal will go into effect on Tuesday. Deri’s Shas party has pushed for Netanyahu to find a path for him to rejoin the cabinet, and the prime minister pledged to find “any legal way whereby you can continue to contribute to the State of Israel.”

Responding to his dismissal, Deri said that after the court decision “it was clear” to both himself and Netanyahu that he would leave the government, but that “no judicial decision will prevent me from serving and representing” the 400,000-odd Shas voters who gave his ultra-Orthodox party 11 Knesset seats in November’s elections. Deri also promised to continue to lead Shas as a lawmaker in the Knesset, and attend meetings of coalition party chiefs.

A spokesman for Deri said the Shas chief will also retain his vice prime minister title, which is largely honorific and carries no official authority. It is unclear whether it will permit Deri to keep an observer seat at the cabinet table, but the spokesman said it was likely that the government would continue to invite Deri to its meetings as an observer.

Briefly, during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu temporarily exited the room and left the meeting in Deri’s charge. Earlier this month, Deri briefly filled in for Netanyahu when the prime minister underwent a routine colonoscopy.

In his comments Sunday the premier slammed the court’s “unfortunate decision” to disqualify Deri from ministerial office, saying it ignored “the will of the people, as shown by the considerable trust that the public placed in the elected representatives who sit in my government, when it was clear to all that you would serve in the cabinet as a senior minister.”

“I reasoned that it was important that you serve the State of Israel as a member of the security cabinet in my government, where you could be of influence, given your years of experience as a member of cabinet in the governments of the late prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin — rich experience that contributed to Israel’s security and resilience,” Netanyahu continued, reading to Deri, seated immediately to his right, from a prepared letter.

The prime minister will be hard-pressed to solve the problems caused by Deri’s ouster, barely three weeks after swearing in a hardline coalition that promised political stability, and just three months after winning Israel’s fifth national election in under four years.

Aryeh Deri arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It’s unclear who will replace Deri in the interior and health ministries. Normally, when a minister quits, his portfolios automatically revert to the prime minister for a temporary period until a new minister is appointed. But since Netanyahu is under criminal indictment in connection to a separate corruption investigation, he is blocked by law from holding any cabinet seat sans the premiership.

As unsourced reports swirled about various potential outside candidates and temporary Shas leaders filling in for Deri, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to make an immediate appointment to fill the vacancies.

“What we see is not a government, it’s a circus. Netanyahu is weak, but he needs to appoint a full-time health minister and interior minister today,” Lapid said in a statement shortly after the cabinet meeting.

Deri was given oversight over two of Israel’s most powerful and well-funded ministries despite his financial crimes. Although Netanyahu did not refer to Deri’s imminent ouster at the outset of Sunday’s meeting, he dedicated the bulk of his remarks to “congratulate Vice Prime Minister and Health Minister Aryeh Deri” for expanding health services covered by the country’s national health insurance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The premier fired Deri four days after the High Court issued its bombshell ruling that the decision to appoint the Shas leader as interior and health minister was “unreasonable in the extreme” in light of Deri’s criminal convictions, most recently in January 2022.

Deri struck a plea bargain at that time with the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, which let him quit Knesset before his sentencing and thus avoid a hearing on whether his tax fraud conviction carried moral turpitude — a designation that would have barred him from holding public office for seven years.

The court at the time believed that Deri was retiring from public life. However, he continued to lead Shas from outside the Knesset and was quickly reinstated as a lawmaker in the November 1 election. Deri then demanded that Netanyahu ensure his way back to the cabinet table, despite the Basic Law: The Government requiring the Central Elections Committee to determine whether his crime carried moral turpitude before he could be appointed a minister.

The coalition rushed through a fix to allow Deri to be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet on December 29.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at a hearing on petitions demanding the annulment of the appointment of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as a government minister due to his recent conviction on tax offenses, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri doubled down Sunday on his claim that he never gave the court the impression that he was quitting politics, despite the judge’s comments from the time confirming exactly that impression. The High Court in its ruling last week partially relied on the concept of judicial estoppel, arguing that Deri could not benefit from a lenient plea deal based on the assumption that he would leave public life, and then quickly return to public life.

In addition to employing estoppel, the court struck down Deri’s appointment as failing the test of reasonableness, a judicial yardstick that Netanyahu’s government has vowed to eliminate amid its efforts to pass sweeping changes to the system of checks and balances.

“I can tell my friends in the government and the public that it was clear to the prosecution and it was clear to the previous attorney general, Dr. Avichai Mandelblit, that I had no intention and that I never had an intention and did not commit to quitting political life. Things were clear and on the table from the beginning of the discussions to the end,” Deri said during the cabinet meeting.

The push by Netanyahu’s government to remake the judiciary would also include transferring the appointment of judges to political control and creating a mechanism to protect Basic Laws from court interference and to re-legislate other laws struck down by the court. His government says it is necessary to correct the balance of power between the political and judicial branches, but critics, including over 100,000 Israelis who took to the streets on Saturday night to protest the reform plan, say it threatens democratic institutions and endangers civil liberties by giving virtually all power to the governing coalition.

Coalition party leader meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu (L) in Jerusalem. Not pictured by present: Degel HaTorah party head Moshe Gafni, Noam leader Avi Maoz, and coalition whip Ofir Katz, January 22, 2023. (Courtesy Likud)

Following the cabinet meeting, key coalition leaders met with Netanyahu. A Likud spokesman said that the meeting was conducted in “good spirits” and with “warmth.” Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich attended, despite him and his two fellow party ministers boycotting the cabinet meeting, in protest over the government’s decision to override his protection of an illegal settlement on Friday.

In addition to coalition faction leaders Deri Smotrich, Yitzhak Goldknopf from United Torah Judaism, Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir, and Noam’s Avi Maoz, ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah — part of the UTJ faction — head Moshe Gafni attended, as well as key Likud allies Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, and coalition whip Ofir Katz.

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