Possible High Court ruling on Interior Minister could topple Israeli government

January 8, 2023 by Pesach Benson
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In a marathon six-hour hearing on Thursday whose outcome could potentially topple Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, Israel’s High Court of Justice heard arguments for and against the controversial appointment of Aryeh Deri to several senior government positions.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony, Nov. 15, 2022. Photo by Elyashiv Rakovski/TPS.

The justices did not indicate when they would issue their decision. But the ruling carries high stakes. The Shas party, which Deri leads, has threatened to withdraw from Netanyahu’s government if its leader cannot be part of it.

Deri, leader of the religious Shas party, 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’s legal issues stem from a January 2022 plea agreement in which he admitted to underreporting the value of the 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 funnelling payments from an investment fund to his brother. 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 behaviour 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.

Petitions against Deri’s appointment were brought by the Movement for Quality Government, the Movement for Ethical Behavior and a group of private individuals. Lawyers representing the Prime Minister and Knesset defended Deri.

The High Court will have to answer several questions. Under the terms of the plea agreement, was Deri’s 2022 break from politics long enough? Does moral turpitude apply to a suspended prison sentence? And was the “Deri Law” inappropriately tailored for Deri?

At the hearing, the primary arguments raised against Deri were that the plea agreement committed him to leave politics permanently and that the Deri law was specifically designed for him. It was also argued that even if the Deri Law is allowed to stand, it should not be retroactively applied to him.

Also raised was why Deri did not seek a ruling on moral turpitude from the head of the Central Elections Committee, who by law is a High Court Justice and who normally rules on the eligibility of candidates.

Arguments in support of Deri emphasised that he never intended to leave politics permanently and that he only resigned from the previous Knesset. When the Knesset dispersed itself in June and called for new elections, it paved the way for Deri’s return to politics, even if that return was faster than anyone expected. Lawyers also argued that a suspended sentence should not be interpreted to carry moral turpitude.

Until the High Court issues a ruling, Deri will continue serving in his various government roles.

Deri was convicted in 2000 of accepting bribes while serving as Interior Minister. Due to good behaviour, he served 22 months of a three-year sentence, leaving prison in 2002. Deri returned to the Knesset in 2013.

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