Last week, presumed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked President Isaac Herzog for the 14 extra days to which he is entitled by law to continue forging his coalition government. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, one of several archenemies Netanyahu has created in his many years as Likud chairman, argued that since the right-wing bloc is prepared to vote in a new Speaker of the Knesset, it means they already are operating as a coalition, and so the president should deny Netanyahu’s request and urge him to present his new government as is.
The president compromised, granting Netanyahu only 10 extra days. It was a message to the next PM that Herzog is watching him.
While it’s true that Netanyahu is done negotiating with his coalition partners, it’s also true that those partners are demanding that key legislation to regulate their new powers in the next government be passed before they’re sworn in. It’s because they don’t trust Netanyahu, whose promises on the eve of a new coalition are written on three-dollar bills. These partners are Bezalel Smotrich who wants a law giving his party control over the civil administration in Judea and Samaria; Itamar Ben Gvir who wants a law giving him control over police policy as National Security Minister; and the toughest one: Aryeh Deri who wants his last year’s conviction on tax evasion not to block his path to becoming a government minister.
Three weeks ago, AG Gali Baharav-Miara informed Netanyahu that Deri’s appointment as minister is against the law which states that anyone who has been sentenced to prison is prohibited from serving as minister for seven years unless the offense does not involve disgrace.
Deri was convicted in January 2022 of tax offenses after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecutor’s office. It was his second conviction, after a 1999 conviction for bribery and other offenses, and sentenced to three years in prison. In that case, Deri was also declared disgraced, which prevented him from holding public office for seven years.
But this time around, it’s not clear whether or not Deri was disgraced. As part of the plea deal reached with the former AG, Avichai Mandelblit, it was agreed that Deri would plead guilty and be convicted and the prosecution would ask the court to give him a suspended prison sentence and a fine of NIS 180,000 ($53,000). The court adopted the plea agreement in its entirety, including the fact that the plea sidestepped the disgrace issue, in a very creative way: Deri resigned from the Knesset just before his conviction and sentencing, so that by the time he was placed on probation he was no longer an elected official, and Mandelblit announced there was no need to deal with this question.
But while the court (though no one else) was convinced that Deri had given up his political aspirations and would pursue other venues in the future, Deri didn’t actually commit to staying away from politics, and he did run and was elected to the 25th Knesset. However, since he is still on a three-year probation, the AG insisted that now that he is a public official, he is in a state of disgrace and may not serve as a minister.
To get him back into his ministerial seat, Deri needs a law amending the current criminal code that would state clearly: an elected official who was convicted of a crime but was only given a suspended sentence is not covered by the disgrace clause.
As I pointed out, Deri insists on the amendment becoming law before his Shas party and its ten MKs enter Netanyahu’s coalition government, and he’s not about to enter the coalition based on promises. And that’s why Netanyahu needed the extra 14 days – for lightning-speed legislation. And to get the legislation through he needed a Knesset Speaker who won’t torpedo the legislation, and that’s why all the coalition members are ready to vote for a Likud Knesset Speaker on Monday.
However, the new law will undoubtedly be challenged, and defending Deri’s reputation will cost Netanyahu serious political capital. Moreover: since the AG is on the record as opposing the Deri appointment, she won’t be able to represent the government in the High Court of Justice in defense of the law. This would require either replacing the AG, which the Likud has been threatening throughout the election campaign or hiring an ad hoc attorney to speak for the government.
But wait, there’s more: the High Court will most likely side with the plaintiffs because, you know, a suspended sentence is a prison sentence minus time. So, the court will kill the new law, Deri will be out, and the fledgling coalition will have to pass an overriding law that empowers the Knesset to disregard the High Court decision. And all of it––Netanyahu’s detractors will be saying––to preserve the political career of a twice-convicted criminal.
This would have been a major scandal for any coalition government. But it is doubly so in the case of presumed-PM Netanyahu, who is facing three criminal counts while all this is going on. Now, that’s a scandal worth watching. Man, I could make a million bucks just on the peanuts concession.