The rise and fall of Arye Deri - opinion

A democracy cannot allow persons who have successively been accused and found guilty of financial offenses to be responsible for vast state budgets as ministers

 ARYE DERI sits in the Knesset plenum. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
ARYE DERI sits in the Knesset plenum.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The decision of the High Court of Justice (HCJ) last Wednesday, which ruled by 10 votes to one that Shas leader Arye Deri cannot serve as a minister in the government, and the reactions to this decision in various sections of Israeli society have highlighted the many contradictions within Israeli society that threaten to tear it apart and further aggravate the problem of governability in the country.

The ruling of the HCJ that Deri’s appointment as a minister was unreasonable to an extreme was based on the following premises: Deri had, over the years, repeatedly committed financial offenses, for the first of which he actually sat in prison; that in the case of the last offence, he had deliberately and knowingly tried to cheat the tax authorities over the sale of a property to his brother, Shlomo Deri.

He officially declared the value of the deal was much lower than it was, in fact, in order to avoid paying the full amount of tax due to the authorities. As well, he made contradictory statements to different legal instances and in public statements about his intention to leave all public office when he signed a plea bargain with the State Attorney’s Office a little over a year ago, in order to avoid receiving an actual imprisonment sentence rather than only a conditional sentence and in order to avoid his offense being officially declared as involving moral turpitude, with all the accompanying legal implications. This, according to some of the Justices, led to a situation of judicial estoppel to Deri’s detriment.

The reactions in Shas have been fierce. As in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters, Deri’s supporters claim that he is innocent and the accusations against him are minor at worst and likely fabricated.

Their main argument is that the only reason for the majority decision against Deri’s appointment as a minister is the result of the fact that only one of the 11 judges in the case was Mizrahi (Justice Yosef Elron) and the rest were Ashkenazim – they included the Arab Justice Khaled Kabub among the them, as well. They totally ignore the fact that all the Ashkenazi government ministers ever prosecuted in the past and found guilty were also judged by courts that were 100%, or nearly so, Ashkenazi.

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

What is incredible is that even though they perceive the main problem to be the fact that the Mizrahim are seriously underrepresented in the Supreme Court, they do not demand that the current legal reform, or revolution, should include a specific provision that a certain percentage of the positions of justices in the Supreme Court should be reserved for Mizrahim.

In a democracy, no one is above the law – even Netanyahu and Deri

INCIDENTALLY, THE assumption that Ashkenazi Supreme Court justices are all liberals and that their decisions are based on this fact is grossly inaccurate. In the first place, the number of conservative justices has grown significantly in recent years, yet all the conservative justices, save Elron, voted in favor of canceling Deri’s appointment to the government, last week. As well, even Elron called on Netanyahu to check with the chairperson of the Central Elections Committee, Justice Noam Sohlberg, about whether or not Deri’s most recent tax offense involved moral turpitude before deciding whether to leave him in the government.

Deri’s supporters also argue that close to 400,000 voters voted for him in the recent general elections and that the court cannot simply ignore this democratic fact. Incidentally, the same argument is used by Netanyahu’s supporters against the trial being held against him. Though they believe that Netanyahu is innocent, their argument is that the legal establishment cannot ignore the fact that Netanyahu is supported by a solid majority and that the State Attorney’s Office and the courts are acting undemocratically when they decide to ignore the decision of the majority.

This position ignores the basic principle in democracy that no one is above the law, not even democratically-elected political leaders. In the case of Deri – and of Netanyahu, for that matter – the offenses he is accused of are relatively minor when compared to corrupt leaders around the world who have embezzled millions or even billions of dollars of state funds or who have committed heinous crimes, such as murder, persecution of opponents, etc.

However, a democracy cannot allow persons who have successively been accused and found guilty of financial offenses to be responsible for vast state budgets as ministers. Furthermore, leaders in democracies are expected to serve as models of proper, legal conduct, otherwise ordinary citizens can justifiably ask why they cannot act in the same manner as their leaders: with impunity.

The problem in the case of Shas is that although on the surface its leaders seem to accept many of the basic rules of the democratic game, especially if they serve their interests, one cannot ignore the facts that they have refused to enable women to run for election to the Knesset and in general, do not accept the equality of women. In addition, it is not clear at all whether the Shas education system provides classes in civic studies, in general, and the principles of democracy, in particular, to its pupils. If it does, what exactly is taught in them?

WITH NETANYAHU’S removal of Deri from the two ministries he was appointed to three weeks ago, the Interior Ministry and Health Ministry, it looks like the prime minister will appoint two other figures on behalf of Shas. Among the Shas MKs, there are certainly some worthy candidates, though last week, there were some strange suggestions, such as Deri’s son, Yanki, who is currently a member of the World Zionist Organization Executive, to be appointed as Interior Minister – as if we live in a political system of hereditary leaders.

Deri himself is said to prefer being appointed as alternate prime minister, which supposedly could save him from removal but this is not a solution that appeals to Netanyahu because he will have to, once again, meddle with the Basic Law: The Government, disperse his current government and appoint a new government before he can appoint Deri as his alternate. As well, he does not really want an alternate prime minister breathing down his neck.

It will be interesting to see what solution will finally emerge. All the indications are that Deri himself will not give up without a fight and nobody really knows how far Netanyahu is willing to go to save Deri, not least because opinion polls suggest that only 20% of the public objects to Deri’s removal under the circumstances.

A personal note: Interviewing Arye Deri in 1989

I should like to end on a personal note. Back in 1989, I interviewed Deri for Spectrum – a Labor Party monthly distributed amongst members of the Socialist International – soon after he was first appointed interior minister. Deri was only 30 years old and very impressive in his openness and practical approach to current problems, such as the issue of daylight savings time, which the ultra-religious parties had traditionally taken a rigid negative stance upon.

Like many others, I viewed him with great promise. I joked with him that he sounded a little like a Mapainik but warned him against getting himself into the sort of financial misdeeds that a few former Mapai leaders had become involved in during the 1970s. Sadly, he didn’t pay heed.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge.