Israel shouldn't say goodbye to Arye Deri: He isn't done yet

INSIDE POLITICS: Netanyahu associate: “Anyone who thinks Deri can be extracted from the government... is mistaken. That is the difference between de jure and de facto.” 

 ARYE DERI gives the thumbs-up sign on Wednesday outside his Har Nof home in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/Reuters)
ARYE DERI gives the thumbs-up sign on Wednesday outside his Har Nof home in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/Reuters)

Up until 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Arye Deri was on the top of the world.

After leading Shas to an extraordinary 11 seats in the November elections, Deri cashed in as the second largest party in the coalition, and settled himself in central and influential positions – the interior and health portfolios, two high-profile and heavily budgeted ministries, while securing a generous package of jobs and budgets for his party in the government.

Deri was also granted the title of deputy prime minister, a position that doesn’t bestow any formal authority, but serves as a recognition of his seniority, power and honor in Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government: After the prime minister, it was Deri who was crowned as the second strongest man in government. He was at the pinnacle of his career.

But the higher they climb, the harder they fall.

Israel's High Court rules: Arye Deri cannot be a minister

Wednesday’s bombshell ruling by the High Court of Justice, issued at 4 p.m., disqualified him from serving as a cabinet minister and ordered his removal from the government, stripping him of all his titles and status symbols. Deri’s tower of cards collapsed: Not only did the court annul his appointment, it effectively shut the door on his tactics and strategies to circumvent the decision and quickly return to office.

 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)

Most of the judges based their ruling on the “extreme unreasonableness” of the appointment, given Deri’s substantial criminal record; others focused on another legal principle, and on the Shas leader’s blatant violation of the plea bargain he reached last year to settle his latest tax fraud and specifically his pledge to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court to retire from politics.

The depth and breadth of the High Court’s decision means the coalition’s initial plan to terminate the test of reasonability in court rulings will not suffice in order to override it, thus blocking Deri’s path back to the government in the foreseeable future, sentencing him for a long exile as a simple Knesset member.

Notably, this is the second time the court has shattered Deri’s successes and dreams. In 1993, When he was only 34, it thwarted his meteoric career spike, ruling that he could not continue serving as a minister while under indictment. Thirty years later, history repeats itself.

Less than 90 minutes after Deri’s striking downfall, the prime minister’s convoy of vehicles arrived at his Jerusalem residence, making its way through a crowd of angry and devastated Shas fans who flocked the Har Nof neighborhood to express their support and outrage.

“When my brother is in distress, I come to him.”

Benjamin Netanyahu

“When my brother is in distress, I come to him,” Netanyahu told Deri, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, showcasing his friendship and empathy.

The deliberated their options for over 40 minutes, but Netanyahu’s confidants admitted there is not much the prime minister can do to help his ally in distress: “The court closed all doors,” one of them said.

Ahead of the court’s ruling, Deri sent out vocal Shas members to the media to attack the judges and threaten to topple the government if his appointment were to be nixed. Once the verdict was a done deal, they were reduced to silence.

Despite Deri’s initial threats to disobey the court’s order, a joint statement issued by coalition party leaders vowed to act “in any legal way” to correct the injustice, taking the disobedience option off the table.

What happens to Arye Deri now?

At first, Deri wanted Netanyahu to appoint him to be the alternate prime minister, a complicated move that would require the government to resign altogether just to be immediately sworn back in.

The prime minister was reluctant about the idea to begin with, as, historically, he tends to avoid delegating anyone as his formal and legal replacement. The clear-cut court decision spared Netanyahu from an uncomfortable rebuttal to his friend, as such a maneuver would likely raise the same legal objections and boomerang back at them.

The High Court’s decree is a severe personal blow for Deri, but is just a soft bump on Netanyahu’s coalition. Regardless of his party’s preliminary intimidating rhetoric, Shas has no better option than to stay part of the government. There is no good way for it to explain to its voters why it should bring down a perfect right-wing government and give up the influential strongholds under its control.

Deri also knows that in sharp contrast to the 64-seat majority the coalition achieved in the last elections, barely 22% of Israelis approve and support his own appointment, according to a recent Channel 12 poll, and that Netanyahu doesn’t tend to act against the public opinion statistics.

Essentially, Deri can continue to do almost exactly what he planned to do, just without the honorary titles: He is the uncontested leader of his party, and can carry on managing and handling the government’s policies from his seat in the Knesset. He intends to appoint two of his loyalist proxies to formally replace him in the Interior and Health ministries, enabling him to steer and dictate the directives. Deri will still be the key power broker in the coalition, and the prime minister plans to summon Deri as a permanent observer to the security cabinet meetings and keep confiding in him in the closest circles of advisers and decision-making.

“Anyone who thinks Deri can be extracted from the government... is mistaken,” one of Netanyahu’s associates said. “That is the difference between de jure and de facto,” he added.

“Anyone who thinks Deri can be extracted from the government... is mistaken. That is the difference between de jure and de facto.”

Netanyahu associate

Deri’s dramatic fall from grace is expected to fuel the energies in the already heated battle over the government’s judicial reform plans and intensify the political and constitutional crisis with burning emotions.

As the Yated Ne’eman haredi newspaper headlined on Thursday, “The High Court against democracy, the court’s decision on Deri is being portrayed as a negation of the 392,000 Shas voters in the last elections. And Shas supporters are once again playing the ethnic card, accusing the majority of Ashkenazi judges of persecuting Sephardi Jews, another throwback to the 1990s.

The court’s knockdown of Deri’s appointment was followed by calls on Justice minister Yariv Levin to fast-track the reform legislation, but Levin has already been expediting his plans; there is not much more he can do to speed up the process.

However, Deri’s tragic protagonist storyline is likely to turn into a symbol: It injects his supporters with rage and intolerance, and loads the judicial reform’s adversaries with strong anti-corruption vibes in support of the court’s independence. If there was any room for compromise, the Deri ruling will probably narrow it.