The Central Elections Committee has delivered the official results of last week’s elections, paving the way for the continuation of the process to form a governing coalition.
The results now enable President Isaac Herzog to begin consulting with representatives of the parties that will be in the next Knesset to hear their recommendations on who should be appointed to form the new coalition.
Indications point clearly to Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu getting the nod at having the first chance to cobble together a majority coalition. He has already stated that he hopes to be able to present a new government on November 15, the day when the Knesset is sworn in.
Despite seemingly having the solid support of United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Religious Zionist Party, which would give the coalition 64 members, Netanyahu has his work cut out. He has to maneuver between the demands and portfolios that his potential partners will try to squeeze from him and keep the ambitions and powers of his partners in check.
Especially in his dealings with Religious Zionist leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu is walking a tightrope. On the one hand, with such a strong showing that garnered 14 seats (10.4% of the vote), Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are a force to be reckoned with. Netanyahu can’t try to appease them with minor ministries and a junior role in the coalition.
On the other hand, giving sensitive ministries to the extremist MKs will take away power from the ruling Likud and potentially put Israel in an uncomfortable position with Western allies – especially if Ben-Gvir receives a position that would put him in contact with foreign powers and they decide to boycott him.
That’s the background to the utterly absurd possibility that Shas leader Aryeh Deri might become the next finance minister.
Keeping Smotrich at arm’s length
According to a report from Radio Kol Chai, Netanyahu was actively encouraging Deri to take the ministry, instead of returning to his coveted Interior Ministry, in an effort to block Smotrich from it.
Smotrich has demanded either the Finance or the Defense ministries, which even Netanyahu could probably not stomach awarding him, especially Defense. However, if Netanyahu gives the Finance portfolio to Deri, he’ll be able to foist a second-tier ministry on Smotrich, such as Education or Transportation, according to the report.
Keeping Smotrich at arm’s length from an “important” ministry, however, would bestow on Deri, whose Shas Party gained 11 seats, a plum role.
In 2000, Deri went to prison for two years for taking bribes while he was interior minister in the 1990s. Upon his release, he returned to politics and found himself again on the wrong side of the law.
He resigned from the Knesset in January as part of a plea deal in which he was handed a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of NIS 180,000 for failure to report income and other tax offenses related to the sale of apartments to his brother, Shlomo.
Because Deri resigned from the Knesset after signing the deal, the issue of whether his actions included moral turpitude – which would prevent him from serving as a minister – is unclear.
An unrepentant horse thief in charge of the barn
What is clear, however, is that Deri, with a past record of bribery and tax evasion, should not be allowed anywhere near the Finance Ministry and the purse strings of the government. It would be like putting an unrepentant horse thief in charge of the barn.
Netanyahu will ultimately have to make his own bed and sleep in it. He’ll likely acquiesce to many of his coalition partners’ demands in order to present Herzog with his fully formed government as soon as possible.
Awarding sensitive posts that require level-headed reasoning and ample experience to political extremists and novices like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich is one thing.
But awarding those posts to a convicted criminal like Arye Deri is on another level of moral ambiguity that barely disguises the desperation that is already being felt as the coalition-building effort is underway. Let’s hope that the reports of that plan are trial balloons and no more.
Otherwise, the likelihood of Deri becoming finance minister would show how low one has to go to become Israel’s prime minister.