Week of January 15, 2023
Aryeh Deri: Israel’s government has been governing for less than a month, and it has already met its first existential crisis. Aryeh Deri, a minister from the Shas Party, was ordered by the High Court to resign immediately from Knesset. If Shas takes its eleven seats and leaves the coalition along with Deri, the coalition will collapse and Israel will be forced into its sixth election in just over three years.
First some background is necessary. Shas (an acronym for “Shomrei Sefarad,” the “Sephardic guardians”) was established as a party in 1984. Shas has always been a sectarian party, founded by ultra-Orthodox Sephardic (Middle Eastern and North African) Jews in response to their feeling that they were discriminated against and were vastly under-represented in Israeli politics. Shas champions “returning the crown to its former glory” (i.e. restoring the prestige of the traditional Sephardic community) and the promotion of social justice. Shas believes in the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and aspires to gather Jews from throughout the world in Israel. In terms of its security-political position, Shas has historically supported arriving at peace agreements with the Arab states while preserving the security of the residents of Israel, but is opposed to the division of Jerusalem. Broadly speaking, Shas is comprised of Likkud voters that espouse right-wing Orthodox Jewish values.
Shas cannot be detached from Aryeh Deri. Deri became involved in Israeli politics early in life and aligned himself with the Shas Party. Very quickly, Deri and Shas became one and the same. In 1988, he was appointed Minister of Internal Affairs at the age of 29. He remained Minister of the Interior until May 1993, when he became a Minister without Portfolio, before returning to the Interior Ministry in June. He left the cabinet in September 1993. He was re-elected to the Knesset in 1996. He was convicted of taking $155,000 in bribes while serving as Interior Minister and given a three-year jail sentence in 2000. Due to good behavior, he was released from prison in 2002 after serving only 22 months. In June 2011, he announced that he was planning to return to politics. He was re-elected to the Knesset in 2013 and placed second in the Shas list. He headed the Shas list for the March 2015 elections and was subsequently appointed Minister of the Economy and Minister of the Development of the Negev and Galilee. In January 2021, he agreed to a plea-bargain agreement in which he was yet again convicted of tax offenses and sentenced to suspended jail time. The court approved the agreement when he promised to retire. He immediately resigned from the Knesset before the High Court could rule whether his actions constituted moral turpitude, which would have barred him from serving as a minister for seven years.
Following the recent 2022 elections, as a condition of joining the coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Shas insisted that the law be changed, so that it does not apply to a person who has received a suspended sentence. The High Court announced last week that Deri cannot serve in the government. Court President Esther Hayut stated, “this is a person who has been convicted three times of offenses throughout his life, and he violated his duty to serve the public loyally and lawfully while serving in senior public positions… Having Deri in charge of two of the most important ministries in the government damages the image and reputation of the country’s legal system and contradicts principles of ethical conduct and legality.” Three days after the high court’s ruling, after Deri refused to resign his posts as Minister of Health and Interior, Netanyahu fired him. Now he wants to come back as the alternate Prime Minister.
My family personally suffered from Deri’s misdeeds. In 1989, we joined a group of families who were going to build a new settlement in the Galilean mountains. Land was designated, plans were made, and we were cleared for takeoff. And then suddenly, Aryeh Deri, then Minister of the Interior, announced that he required time to “study the topic.” A few months later, the land that was designated to build our new town was given over to a new group of families that just happened to be ultra-Orthodox and Sephardic. Our group fell apart and we were left to fend for ourselves. Meanwhile, Deri’s group floundered and the hilltop that was designated for our home remained barren. In 1995, we spent tens of thousands of dollars per family to purchase building rights from Deri’s group. The Interior Ministry called it “redeeming the land.” We called it extortion.
While there is much to say about the dangers of the High Court overturning government appointments, a topic for a future essay, one cannot help but be thankful that Deri was ousted. David Weinberg wrote in the Jerusalem Post over the weekend, “The fact that Deri has been caught in criminal violations more than once and gone to jail has not stopped him. He brushes this off by presenting himself as a persecuted Dreyfus and wronged Demjanjuk rolled into one, and as a holy man whose concern for the poor will bring salvation to the downtrodden of Israel. He seditiously plays the ethnic card, with him being discriminated against as… a poor, marginalized Sephardic Jew… He has no problem cynically inflaming ethnic tensions in this way, even though it is of course ridiculous for Deri to claim marginalization. If anybody has been in the privileged political driver’s seat for the past 25 years, as opposed to being victimized, it is Arye Deri.”