Court Order on Shas Minister Potential Threat to Coalition

A new threat hangs over Yitzhak Rabin’s government following an interim ruling Wednesday by the High Court of Justice requiring the attorney general to explain how Interior Minister Arye Deri can remain in office despite an ongoing police investigation of him.

Attorney General Yosef Harish was given 60 days to plead the government’s case after the court issued its order at the request of Knesset member Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party.

Political observers said the order would surely strain the delicate fabric of the Rabin coalition, which comprises the Labor Party, the left-wing Meretz bloc and the fervently Orthodox Shas party, which Deri heads.

In his petition to the court, Yahalom cited Den’s refusal to cooperate with police investigators and argued that while every man has the right to remain silent, a minister who resorts to that right, in an inquiry related to ministry business, should have to step down for the duration of the inquiry.

Deri has been under investigation for more than two years. Suspicions focus both on his ministry’s alleged irregular funding of Shas-linked religious and educational institutions, and on alleged personal financial improprieties.

Officials had undertaken to wind up the inquiry one way or the other by the end of November. But now informed sources say more time is needed by police and the state attorney’s office to complete their investigation.

Deri frequently complains that the case is dragging on needlessly. Last week, he said he would “open up and embarrass a lot of people” if the inquiry did not end soon.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal and his Likud predecessor, Ronni Milo, have both repeatedly said part of the reason for the delay in concluding the inquiry is Den’s steadfast refusal to answer investigators’ questions.

Deri himself contends the questions and the questioners are tendentious. Last week saw the opening in the Tel Aviv District Court of his libel action against the country’s largest newspaper, Yediot Achronot, over publication of the allegations against him.

Yahalom’s petition to the court is clearly intended to embarrass the government, of which his party is not a member. He apparently did not feel the need for such a court challenge while the NRP and Shas were coalition allies in the previous Likud administration.

Justice Aharon Barak, heading the court bench Wednesday, made reference to a celebrated case currently pending in New York state, where Appeals Court Chief Justice Sol Wachtler, accused of sexual harassment, retained his right to remain silent while at the same time resigning his judicial post.

Barak directed that the attorney general also address the question of whether there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest in the fact that Deri remains in office as minister of interior, while suspicions involving his activities in that very capacity are under investigation.

Appearing in court for the government, Deputy State Attorney Nili Arad maintained Deri was not compelled to step down in the absence of formal charges.

She submitted a copy of a letter written by Deri to Rabin during negotiations to set up a new government in July, in which the interior minister pledged to suspend himself from his post if and when formal charges are brought against him.

NEXT STORY