Perspective 93. Netanyahu Bows to Israel's Supreme Court: A Turning Point?
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been forced “with a heavy heart” to accept a Supreme Court ruling that Arye Deri, leader of the coalition party Shas, cannot serve as a cabinet minister. Is this a significant setback in the new government’s efforts to subdue a staunchly independent judicial system?
No. Interchangeable Shas politicos will take over the Ministries of Interior and Health and Deri will remain as a powerful figure, probably in a high position less subject to the court’s jurisdiction. The coalition will remain in place, and the program to gut judicial independence will remain in place.
In perspective, it is important to understand the role of Shas in the past and present. Shas is the most explicitly communal Jewish party in Israel, being founded in 1984 to represent the interests of Sephardi immigrants from Middle Eastern countries (its initials stand for Sephardi Guardians). It is also a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party in its leadership, though many of its voters are less strict in practice.
Being dependent on state funding for its separate school system, Shas has tried and succeeded in joining most governments since its founding. Since refugees from Arab lands tend to be more hawkish on the central axis of Israeli politics, Shas has worked easily with parties of the right – but has also partnered with other parties to protect its interests. The party will not bring down the government over a shift in its ministerial assignments.
For that matter, Deri’s court battles are not a new phenomenon. As leader of Shas, Deri was in 1999 convicted of bribery and served two years in prison, following which he was exiled from politics for several years before finally being brought back into the fold. By 2013 he again emerged as leader of the party. One might have assumed that, after two years in prison, Deri would take pains to keep his financial house as pure as the driven snow. But apparently not; in early 2022 he pled guilty to tax fraud and was spared prison, this time, by a plea bargain which included his stated plan to retire from political life.
But Deri reneged on this presumed promise, triggering the court’s decision (in an 11-1 vote!) to block his assumption of not one, but two key ministries in the new Netanyahu politburo. In this case, the court was following the standing precedent that no one under indictment could serve as a minister in an Israeli government. Deri had not only been indicted but had actually confessed and been sentenced.
Strangely enough, this precedent does not extend to the office of Prime Minister, where Bibi has been under indictment, and on trial for almost three years, for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. One has to sympathize with poor Arye Deri; if he had only made it one rung higher on the political ladder, as Prime Minister he could have continued to enjoy both fraud and high office.