Former Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit said in an interview that aired on Sunday that contrary to the claim of the Supreme Court, Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri did not agree to leave politics as part of a plea deal struck last year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last month dismissed Deri from his ministerial positions after the Supreme Court ruled that his appointment was “unreasonable in the extreme” due to a prior tax fraud conviction. Deri had held the roles of interior and health minister, as well as vice prime minister.
The court issued the ruling despite a Knesset amendment passed in December to allow Deri to serve as a minister. The amendment specified that a seven-year ban on persons serving as ministers if convicted of a criminal offense applies only to those serving active jail sentences. Deri was handed a suspended jail sentence as part of a plea bargain last February. The law had been unclear on whether the seven-year ban applied to suspended sentences.
In the Channel 12 interview, Mandelblit expressed regret over the way the investigation into Deri was handled, conceding that it was too protracted, and that law enforcement officials “did not excel in the case.”
The legal establishment claimed that as part of the plea deal, Deri had promised to retire from politics, and indeed he quit the Knesset at the time. As such, no legal opinion was formulated on whether Deri was required by law to leave the political realm for an extended period, which is the case when an official is convicted of the more serious crime of moral turpitude, for example.
The Supreme Court cited as one of the factors in its ruling against Deri his return to the current government, saying he had misled the judge in his tax fraud case by subsequently heading the Shas Party’s electoral slate in the 2022 elections.
Mandelblit, by contrast, said that this had “unequivocally” not been part of Deri’s plea agreement.
All 64 members of the governing coalition have since signed onto an amendment to Basic Law: The Government that would block the Supreme Court from intervening in the appointment of Cabinet ministers, and essentially undo the decision.
“Deri Law No. 2,” as it’s been coined, is expected to go before the Knesset in the coming week.
In his Jan. 22 letter firing Deri in accordance with the court ruling, Netanyahu said, “This unfortunate decision ignores the will of the people, as reflected in the great trust that the public gave to the people’s representatives [during the Nov. 1 election] … when it was clear to everyone that you would serve in the government as a senior minister.”
The premier concluded by stating that he will seek “any legal way” to allow Deri to “continue to contribute to the State of Israel.”
The Deri saga comes against the background of a political battle around the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform plan, which aims to curtail what it says is judicial overreach. The plan would give the Knesset the ability to overturn court decisions that cancel laws, allow elected officials greater influence in selecting judges and reduce the power of legal advisers attached to government ministries.
Netanyahu on Sunday condemned calls by opponents of his government’s judicial reform plan to break the law, urging them to act responsibly.
“I would like to strongly criticize the calls to break the law, for civil rebellion, to intentionally harm the economy, and even use weapons, by those who oppose government policy,” said Netanyahu. “Red lines cannot be crossed. Red lines have been crossed in recent days by extremist elements that have one goal: To intentionally bring about anarchy.”
His government had received a clear mandate from the people of Israel in a democratic election, he continued.
“Nobody here can deny this. Neither can anyone deny the right to demonstrate. However, there cannot be calls to violence, to act violently, to call for civil rebellion, to compel people to strike who do not want to do so. This is forbidden,” he said.
“I am certain that the vast majority of the citizens of Israel, whether they support the reform or not, oppose this extremism and will not allow the country to fall into anarchy. I call on everyone to lower the tone and begin a substantive dialogue. We have one country and together we will safeguard it.”
Organizers of the mass Saturday night protests against the reform plan have called for a nationwide strike on Monday. They received backing from opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, who has called the government’s proposal an “extreme regime change” and vowed to continue fighting in streets across the country in “a war over our home.”