Israel's High Court blocks Arye Deri from serving as minister

Ten to one, the High Court ruled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should remove Deri from his positions.

 Arye Deri at a meeting of the Health care basket committee, at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on January 18, 2023 (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Arye Deri at a meeting of the Health care basket committee, at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on January 18, 2023
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Shas chairman Arye Deri cannot retain his position as interior and health minister, the High Court ruled on Wednesday in response to petitions challenging Deri's appointment and the Basic Law amendment that allowed his rise to the post despite his criminal sentencing.

Ten to one, the High Court ruled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should remove Deri from his positions, due to the appointment's unreasonableness and the Shas Chairman's plea bargain in which he promised that he would not return to public life. The court declined to rule on the Basic Law amendment’s procedure, the third item petitioned on by critics.

Shas would still retain the interior and health ministries, and Deri is still a member of Knesset.

High Court: Deri's case extreme and unusual

High Court president Esther Hayut and six other justices said that while judicial intervention in the appointment of a minister should be limited and used in only egregious cases, Deri's case represented an extreme and unusual situation.

The High Court determined that Deri's long and persistent history of criminal offenses while in public service was extreme and allowed the application of the Reasonableness Clause. The clause is used by the court to intercede in administrative decisions that are beyond the scope of what a reasonable and responsible authority would entertain.

 Health and Interior Minister Arye Deri at the handover ceremony for the Interior Ministry, January 1, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Health and Interior Minister Arye Deri at the handover ceremony for the Interior Ministry, January 1, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

High Court votes 10-1, justice Elron dissents

Justice Yosef Elron dissented, saying that Netanyahu should confer with the elections committee to determine if the tax offenses were considered moral turpitude, a title that would result would otherwise impact ministerial appointment.

Deri's signing of a plea bargain for tax offenses committed while in office was cited as lending to the court's decision. much of the court accepted that by signing the plea bargain, he had committed to retiring from public life. Deri's legal team argued that the deal didn't include his retirement from government work, and he had never intended to commit to such an action.

The court refrained from ruling on concerns regarding the amendment to the Basic Law, which it said was a last resort, and using judicial review in such a situation would invalidate it as such.

Justice David Mintz argued that it wasn't possible to conduct a review of the Basic Laws, which the amendment already fell under.

However, the court noted that the legislation was tainted by a "Distinct personal stain."

In December, the amendment, so-called the “Deri Law”, was passed. It amended the Basic Law: The Government that prevented those with suspended sentences from serving as a minister. Deri's tax offense plea bargain gave him a suspended prison sentence and a fine.

Petitioners: Deri changed the rules of the game

Petitioners argued to the court the procedure of the passing of the amendment to the Basic Law. It was contended during the hearing that the amendment "changed the rules of the game during play" of the 2022 general election. It was known that Deri was unable to serve in the government at the time of voting, and the law was an element of negotiation in the coalition talks to form a government. They also argued that it was passed in a "hasty" manner with little discussion.

The Deri Law was accused of being a personal law, rather than a general one as legislation should be. Proponents of the amendment argued at the hearing that, while Deri was impacted by the law, his case was part of a broader, general issue that had to be addressed.

Dafna Holtz-Lachner, lawyer to one of the petitioning groups, Citadel of Democracy, welcomed the verdict. 

The court sent a clear message today that a criminal cannot serve as minister," she said.

The Moral Purity Movement, another petitioner, was also pleased with the decision, but said that it hoped "we will not reach dangerous places of disobedience to High Court rulings."

Another petitioner, The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, was more positive, saying "The Movement is sure that Prime Minister Netanyahu will respect the verdict, and fire Deri. The government is not a correctional facility for criminals, and the State of Israel deserves more!"

However, Wednesday night, coalition members came out with strong statements against the ruling, describing it as a coup d’état and revolution.

The Moral Purity Movement also said that it hoped "that the threats currently being made against the High Court will not lead, God forbid, to a state of anarchy."

Other coalition members attacked the Reasonableness Clause and promised to push on with the judicial reforms proposed at the beginning of January by Justice Minister Yariv Levin. 

Levin announced the reforms on the eve of the Deri appointment hearing, and was seen by some critics as antagonistic to the court. The proposed reform would all but remove the Reasonableness Clause and severely limit the High Court's ability to review the Knesset's legislation.