Former Interior Minister Arye Deri last week agreed to a plea bargain approved by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit under which he will admit to tax evasion, will resign from the Knesset and pay a NIS 180,000 fine. Mandelblit said on Thursday that due to Deri’s public commitment to quit the Knesset, he would not seek a finding of moral turpitude, which could block Shas lawmaker from running in the next elections.
This is a favorable deal from Deri’s viewpoint. He would avoid prison time, remain chairman of Shas, and have no official obstacle preventing him from running again for office at a later date.
On the other hand, this is a terrible deal from the perspective of the public fight against corruption. Deri is an ex-convict, and has already served a term in jail. The fact that he is being convicted again with the door open for a return to politics is a stain on Mandelblit’s career and a failure to protect the country from corrupt politicians.
The leader of the Shas party served two years in jail for bribery. That first conviction was related to the period when he was interior minister, a position that he was forced to give up in 1993.
It is mindboggling that under those circumstances Deri, who was released from prison in 2002, was not only able to return to politics 10 years later and regain the Shas leadership, but also returned to the government. In Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2015, Deri made a comeback first as economy minister and minister of the development of the Negev and Galilee and then, as interior minister. It was the political equivalent of returning to the scene of the crime. This was the exact same position he was forced to leave ahead of his first conviction.
The interior portfolio is one of the most powerful positions in the cabinet, ruling over among other things, municipal budgets and ordnances as well as the Population and Immigration Authority.
As a convicted criminal, Deri would have been blocked from immigrating under the regulations of the ministry he himself controlled, and yet there was nothing to legally bar him from holding that high position. This is not only absurd, it is immoral.
Under Israeli law, people convicted of crimes with moral turpitude are able to enter or return to national politics seven years after their release from prison. It is this clause that allowed Deri and others like him to take up influential posts in national politics even following a criminal conviction.
It is time this law is changed to put a stop to this. It is time for Israel to say out loud and clear that political corruption and corrupt politicians will not be welcome in positions of power. The general public cannot help but feel demoralized and jaded when they see well-connected politicians bouncing back from jail into a position of power.
Preventing Deri from once again returning to the Interior Ministry, or another government position, following a repeat offense involving monetary misdeeds, would be a step showing that the country has had enough of corruption. How can the government expect ordinary people to pay taxes and be law-abiding when its own members have been convicted of dodging taxes and breaching laws?
We recognize the principle that a released prisoner has paid his debt to society and that former convicts should be able to resume a normal life. But Deri’s case shows the failings of the system. You cannot reasonably give a convicted criminal control over a budget of millions and the ability to hand out jobs to whomever they want. It puts temptation in their path. And it sends out a hugely problematic message that moral principles are not necessary in political posts.
There is no way to deny Deri maintaining his grip on the leadership of the Shas party, but it must be made clear that he cannot be rewarded, after a second conviction, with a return to the Knesset or the government.
The public deserves better than this. Good governance is not too much to ask for. It should be a given.