Netanyahu fires Deri ‘with a heavy heart’ after Supreme Court removes convicted minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his top ally Arie Deri from the cabinet on Sunday, in a move expected to cause political uncertainty despite being authorized by the Supreme Court and advocated by the attorney general.

Netanyahu said he was “forced, with a heavy heart” to comply with the court’s ruling on Wednesday governing — which cited Derry’s numerous convictions and recent apparent fraud at a lower court — and ended Derry’s dual appointment as interior and health secretary. The layoff will take effect Tuesday. Derry’s Shas party demanded that Netanyahu find a way for him to rejoin the cabinet, and the prime minister promised to find “any legal way with which you can continue to contribute to the State of Israel.

In response to his dismissal, Deri said that after the court ruling “it was clear” to both him and Netanyahu that he would leave the government, but that he would not retire from political life. “No court ruling will prevent me from serving and representing” the roughly 400,000 Shas voters who gave his ultra-Orthodox party 11 Knesset seats in November’s election, he said.

Derry promised to continue leading the Shas as a lawmaker in the Knesset, chairing meetings of its factions and attending meetings of coalition party leaders. Indeed, Deri participated in a meeting of coalition leaders convened by Netanyahu shortly after the cabinet meeting in which he was fired.

A Derry spokesman said the Shas chief would also retain his title of deputy prime minister, which is largely honorary and carries no official powers. It was not clear whether it would allow Derry to retain an observer seat at the cabinet table, but the spokesman said it was likely the government would continue to invite Derry to its meetings as an observer.

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

In his comments on Sunday, the prime minister criticized the court’s “unfortunate decision” to disqualify Derry from ministerial office, saying it disregarded “the will of the people, as demonstrated by the considerable confidence the public has placed in the elected representatives who occupy my government when it was clear to everyone that you would serve in the cabinet as a senior minister.’

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

The prime minister will be hard pressed to resolve the problems caused by the Derry ouster, just three weeks after swearing in a hard-line coalition that promised political stability, and just three months after winning Israel’s fifth national election in less than 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 is not clear who will replace Derry in the interior and health ministries. Normally, when a minister resigns, his portfolios automatically revert to the prime minister for an interim period until a new minister is appointed. But because Netanyahu has been criminally charged in connection with a separate corruption investigation, he is barred by law from holding any cabinet position other than prime minister.

As unsourced reports circulated about various potential external candidates and interim leaders of the Shas replacing Derry, opposition leader Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to hold an immediate meeting to fill the vacancies.

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

Derry was given oversight of two of Israel’s most powerful and well-funded ministries despite his financial crimes. Although Netanyahu did not mention Deri’s impending removal at the start of Sunday’s meeting, he devoted most of his remarks to “congratulating Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Arie Deri” for expanding health services covered by the country’s national health insurance .

Netanyahu fires Deri ‘with a heavy heart’ after Supreme Court removes convicted minister

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

The prime minister sacked Derry four days after the Supreme Court issued its bombshell ruling that the decision to appoint the Shas leader as home and health minister was “ultimately unwise” in light of Derry’s criminal convictions, most recently in January 2022.

At the time, Derry struck a deal with the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court that allowed him to leave the Knesset before his sentencing and thus avoid a hearing on whether his conviction for tax fraud carries moral turpitude, a ruling that would have barred him from holding public office for a long time seven years old.

The court at the time believed that Derry was withdrawing from public life. However, he continued to lead Shas outside the Knesset and was quickly reinstated as an MP in the November 1 election. Derry then asked Netanyahu to secure his way back to the cabinet table, despite the basic law: The government requires the Central Election Commission to determine whether his crime constitutes moral turpitude before he can be appointed a minister.

The coalition rushed a decision to allow Derry to be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet on 29 December.

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

Derry on Sunday doubled down on his claim that he never gave the court the impression that he was giving up politics, despite the judge’s words comments of the time, confirming exactly this impression. The Supreme Court in its decision last week partially referred to the concept of judicial estoppelarguing that Derry could not benefit from a leniency deal based on the assumption that he would leave public life and then quickly return to public life.

In addition to applying estoppel, the court rejected Derry’s appointment as failing the test of reasonableness, a judicial criterion that Netanyahu’s government has vowed to eliminate amid efforts to push through radical 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. Avihai Mandelblit, that I had no intention and that I never had the intention and I was not committed to give up political life. Things were clear and on the table from the beginning of the discussions to the end,” Derry said during the cabinet meeting.

The Netanyahu government’s push to overhaul the judiciary will also include shifting the appointment of judges to political control and creating a mechanism to protect core laws from court interference and to re-legislate other laws struck down by the court. His government says it needs to adjust the balance of power between the political and judicial branches, but critics, including more than 100,000 Israelis who took to the streets Saturday night to protest the reform plan, say it threatens democratic institutions and threatens civil liberties by giving virtually all power to the ruling coalition.

Coalition party leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Courtesy of Likud)

After the cabinet meeting, key coalition leaders met with Netanyahu. A Likud spokesman said the meeting took place in a “good mood” and with “warmth”. Religious Zionist leader Bezalel Smotrich attended, although he boycotted the cabinet meeting along with two fellow party ministers in protest at the government’s decision to revoke his protection of an illegal settlement on Friday.

In addition to the leaders of the Deri coalition factions, Smotrich, Yitzhak Goldnopf of United Torah Judaism, Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit and Avi Maoz of Noam, the head of the Degel HaTorah faction of the UTJ Moshe Gafni — Minister of Justice Yariv Levin — attended the meeting , Minister of Education Yoav Kish and coalition whip Ofir Katz.

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