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Coalition scrambles to give Deri new role, possibly alternate prime minister, after court ruling

Some government ministers are demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appoint Shas leader Aryeh Deri as alternate prime minister, Israeli media reported Thursday, a day after the ultra-Orthodox party leader was disqualified by the High Court from justice to serve as Prime Minister. Cabinet minister for his repeated criminal convictions.

However, making Deri an alternate prime minister is a daunting task, and implementing it would be complex and risky, as it could lead to Deri’s disqualification even as a Knesset member.

The role of alternate prime minister was created in 2020 by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz for their short-lived power-sharing government and was also used by the subsequent government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which was replaced last month . Netanyahu and his new hardline government have vowed to give up the legal option of having an alternate prime minister, arguing there should be only one national leader.

While Netanyahu may not be thrilled with the prospect of appointing Deri to a role he has sought to eliminate altogether, he lacks alternatives as the Shas leader refuses to be named Knesset Speaker, instead demanding a higher profile role, according to Channel 12 news.

Deri’s appointment to the post would force the government to pass a no-confidence motion against itself and form a new power-sharing government. However, as the High Court has never ruled on whether a convicted felon can be appointed to the post, the case is likely to come before the judges.

The court could condition the appointment on a decision by the Central Elections Committee on whether Deri’s tax offense conviction last year – which earned him a suspended sentence as part of a plea bargain – involves “moral turpitude”. Such a designation would mean that he cannot hold any public office for seven years.

In such a scenario, which is not unlikely, Deri would automatically cease to be a member of the Knesset and would be further demoted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Jerusalem home of Shas leader Aryeh Deri after the High Court of Justice disqualified him from serving as minister, January 18, 2023 (video screenshot)

“We will do everything to bring Deri back to the government table. But give Deri [the role of] Alternate Prime Minister will not arrive. We will not go back to the days of two prime ministers. The State of Israel has only one Prime Minister and his name is Benjamin Netanyahu,” an unnamed lawmaker from the Prime Minister’s Likud party was quoted as saying by the Kipa news site.

If Deri does not step down from his dual ministerial roles as interior minister and health minister, Netanyahu is legally bound to fire him. In short letter Prime Minister on Thursday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara ordered him to obey the court’s decision and do so, writing: “MK Deri cannot continue to serve as a minister in the government of Israel … You must act in accordance to rule and delete [Deri] of their roles in government.

But according to Netanyahu associates quoted by Maariv, Netanyahu will allow Deri to weigh his options and decide for himself which way to go. “Netanyahu is not pressuring Deri for anything. They have a deal,” unnamed sources said.

Deri himself has pledged to overturn the decision, saying Wednesday that “if they close the door – we will enter through the window, if they close it – we will tear down the ceiling”.

Meanwhile, Deri began to assess potential replacements for the roles of interior and health ministers.

According to reports, he plans to appoint Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov as health minister.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Makor Rishon’s website quoted Shas officials on Thursday as saying Deri’s standing in the party had actually improved after the High Court ruling. “Deri is the undisputed leader of the party and will continue to be,” the unnamed officials said.

The High Court ruled on Wednesday that Deri’s dual appointment as health and home minister was “grossly unreasonable” in light of his recent and past financial crimes, and that Deri had misled a court of proceedings by making him believe that he would withdraw from political life in order to evade a decision that his recent conviction for tax evasion involved “moral turpitude”.

Deri was also convicted and jailed for accepting bribes during a previous stint as interior minister in the 1990s.

A poll this month indicated that less than a quarter of Israelis support Deri’s appointment as minister. The Channel 12 survey found that 65% of those polled opposed it, 22% supported it and 13% were unsure.

Among supporters of Netanyahu’s bloc, 43% said it was not appropriate for Deri to serve as minister, while 42% said it was.

Michael Bachner and Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.

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