Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired top ally Aryeh Deri from the cabinet on Sunday in a move expected to create political uncertainty, despite a mandate from the Supreme Court and advocated by the attorney general.
Netanyahu said he was “forced with a heavy heart” to comply with Wednesday’s court ruling — citing Deri’s multiple convictions and recent apparent deception of a lower court — and Deri’s dual nomination as interior and health minister to end. The resignation takes effect on Tuesday. Deri’s Shas party has urged Netanyahu to find a path for him to rejoin the cabinet, and the prime minister vowed to find “any legal way you can continue to contribute to the State of Israel.”
Reacting to his resignation, Deri said that after the court ruling, it was “clear” to both himself and Netanyahu that he would leave the government, but that he would not retire from political life. “No court decision will prevent me from serving and representing the approximately 400,000 Shas voters who gave his ultra-Orthodox party 11 Knesset seats in the November election,” he said.
Deri pledged to continue leading Shas as a legislator in the Knesset, chairing parliamentary group meetings and attending meetings of coalition party leaders. Indeed, Deri took part in a meeting of coalition leaders called by Netanyahu shortly after the cabinet meeting at which he was fired.
A spokesman for Deri said the Shas chief will also retain his title of deputy prime minister, which is largely honorary and has no official authority. It is unclear whether it will allow Deri to keep an observer seat at the cabinet table, but the spokesman said it was likely that the government would continue to invite Deri to its meetings as an observer.
In short, during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu temporarily left the room and left the meeting led by Deri. Earlier this month, Deri briefly filled in for Netanyahu as the prime minister underwent a routine colonoscopy.
In his comments on Sunday, the prime minister denounced the court’s “unfortunate decision” to disqualify Deri from ministerial office, saying it “disregarded the will of the people, as evidenced by the considerable trust the public placed in the elected representatives who sit in my government”. , when it was clear to everyone that you would serve as a senior minister in the cabinet.
“I reasoned that it was important that you served the State of Israel as a member of the security cabinet in my government, where you could be influential given your years of experience as a cabinet member in the governments of the late prime ministers. Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin – rich experience that has contributed to Israel’s security and resilience,” Netanyahu continued, reading Deri, who sat directly to his right, from a prepared letter.
The prime minister will struggle to resolve the problems created by Deri’s impeachment, barely three weeks after swearing in a hardline coalition that promised political stability, and just three months after winning Israel’s fifth national election in less than four years. year.
It is unclear who will replace Deri in the interior and health ministries. Normally, when a minister leaves, his portfolios automatically revert to the prime minister for a temporary period until a new minister is appointed. But since Netanyahu has been charged criminally in connection with a separate corruption investigation, he is not allowed by law to hold a cabinet seat without a premiership.
As unsubstantiated reports circulated about several potential outside candidates and temporary Shas leaders replacing Deri, opposition leader Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu to immediately arrange an appointment to fill the vacancies.
“What we are seeing is not a government, it is a circus. Netanyahu is weak, but he must appoint a full-time health and interior minister today,” Lapid said in a statement shortly after the cabinet meeting.
Despite his financial crimes, Deri was placed in charge of two of Israel’s most powerful and well-funded ministries. While Netanyahu made no reference to Deri’s imminent impeachment at the start of Sunday’s meeting, he devoted most of his remarks to “congratulating Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Aryeh Deri” for expanding the health services covered by the national health insurance of the country.
The Prime Minister fired Deri four days after the Supreme Court ruled that the decision to appoint the Shas leader as Home Affairs and Health Minister was “extremely unreasonable” in light of Deri’s criminal convictions, most recently in January 2022.
At the time, Deri entered a plea with the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court that would allow him to leave the Knesset before his conviction was handed down and thus avoid a hearing on whether his conviction for tax fraud involved moral transgressions – a clue that would have excluded him of holding public office for seven years. years.
At the time, the court ruled that Deri was withdrawing from public life. However, he continued to run Shas from outside the Knesset and was quickly reinstated as a legislator in the November 1 election. Deri then demanded that Netanyahu secure his way back to the cabinet table, despite the Basic Law: The government required the Central Election Commission to determine whether his crime involved moral outrage before he could be appointed minister.
The coalition rushed through a solution to have Deri sworn in on December 29 along with the rest of the cabinet.
Deri on Sunday doubled down on his claim that he never gave the court the impression that he was leaving politics, despite the judge’s comments from the time confirming just that impression. The Supreme Court relied in part on the concept of judicial disbarment in its ruling last week, arguing that Deri could not benefit from a lenient plea deal based on the assumption that he would leave public life and then quickly return to public life. life.
In addition to using disqualification, the court struck down Deri’s nomination because he failed the test of reasonableness, a judicial yardstick the Netanyahu government has pledged to eliminate amid its efforts to make sweeping changes to its system of checks and balances. balances.
“I can tell my friends in government and the public that it was clear to the prosecution and the former Attorney General, Dr. Avichai Mandelblit, that I had no intention and I never had any intention and no intention to leave political life . From the beginning of the talks to the end, things were clear and on the table,” Deri said at the cabinet meeting.
The Netanyahu government’s push to reform the judiciary also includes transferring the appointment of judges to political control and creating a mechanism to protect basic laws from court interference and to enforce other laws passed by the court. deleted again. His administration says it is necessary to correct the balance of power between the political and judicial branches, but critics, including more than 100,000 Israelis who took to the streets Saturday night to protest the reform plan, say it threatens democratic institutions and civil liberties by giving virtually all power to the governing coalition.
After the cabinet meeting, key coalition leaders met with Netanyahu. A Likud spokesman said the meeting was held with “good humor” and “warmth”. Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich attended despite boycotting the cabinet meeting along with two party members in protest of the government’s decision to override its protection of an illegal settlement on Friday.
In addition to coalition faction leaders Deri, Smotrich, Yitzhak Goldknopf of United Torah Judaism, Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit and Avi Maoz of Noam, the meeting was also attended by UTJ’s Degel HaTorah faction head Moshe Gafni – Justice Minister Yariv Levin, minister of Education Yoav Kisch and coalition whip Ofir Katz.