Reluctantly complying with a Supreme Court ruling last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no alternative but to bite the bullet on January 22 and dismiss Aryeh Deri as a minister in his cabinet. His dismissal took effect on January 24.
If he had not fired Deri, who was recently convicted of tax fraud and who served a two-year prison term in the 1990s on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he would have flouted the rule of law and plunged Israel into a constitutional crisis.
If this scenario had materialized, it would have occurred at a particularly fraught moment, when Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government is facing harsh internal and external criticism over its controversial proposal to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court.
Given Deri’s criminal record, ten of the eleven judges on the highest court objected to his joint appointment as health minister and interior minister on the grounds of “extreme unreasonability.”
As part of a plea agreement in 2021, Deri — the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party — solemnly promised to relinquish his seat in the Knesset and leave politics. Blatantly reneging on his pledge, he ran in last November’s election, winning eleven parliamentary seats and playing a central role in Netanyahu’s success in forming a majority government and reclaiming the premiership after 18 months in the opposition.
Netanyahu, who himself is on trial for corruption, should have known better than to appoint Deri, a convicted felon, to ministerial positions. But because political survival is and has always been his first priority, he threw caution to the wind and welcomed him back to government.
Immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its verdict on the inadmissibility of Deri’s inclusion in the cabinet, Netanyahu visited him at his home and reportedly said, “When my brother is in distress, I come to him.”
Deri, whose constituency is generally comprised of observant working-class Jews of Middle Eastern descent, issued a blustery statement on Twitter. “I intend to continue with great strength and boldness …” he wrote.
In line with Deri’s grandiose comment, the Shas Party threatened to withdraw from Netanyahu’s government if Deri was removed from office. Worried his government might collapse, Netanyahu failed to comply with the Supreme Court order.
But after Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara warned Netanyahu he was legally obliged to uphold it, Netanyahu finally sacked Deri. “I am forced, with a heavy heart, great sorrow and a very difficult feeling, to remove you from your position as a minister in the government,” Netanyahu wrote Deri in a letter.
Denouncing the Supreme Court order as a “regrettable decision that ignores the will of the people,” Netanyahu informed Deri he would “seek any legal way” for him to continue “to contribute to the state of Israel …”
That Netanyahu is still intent on retaining the services of a convicted criminal is tellingly indicative of his distorted values, twisted attitudes and determination to remain as prime minister.
Netanyahu’s loyalty to Deri should not come as a surprise, since is is protecting himself and his checkered legacy. After he himself was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu should have done the right thing and stepped aside as prime minister, an option he never considered.
As for Deri, he remains disgustingly defiant.
In the wake of his removal, Deri told the cabinet he would continue to work for his 400,000 constituents. As he put it, “No judicial decision will prevent me from serving … and representing them. I intend to … contribute with all my might to the public and the coalition.”
As if his chutzpah was not grating enough, Deri implied he had no respect for the Supreme Court. “They close the door on us, so we will enter through the window,” he boasted. “They close the window on us, so we will break in through the ceiling.”
Deri’s heated rhetoric, combined with Netanyahu’s arrogance and tone deafness, augurs badly for Israeli democracy. Their misguided, self-serving reactions to the Supreme Court ruling should stiffen the resolve of Israelis who adamantly reject Netanyahu’s dangerous proposal to weaken the judiciary and eliminate Israel’s valuable system of checks and balances.
The Deri scandal is indeed a blemish on Israeli politics.