High Court Order on Shas Leader Could Imperil Labor Government

Israel’s Labor-led government has been plunged into a period of dangerous political uncertainty following a ruling Tuesday by the High Court of Justice giving the government 14 days to explain why Interior Minister Aryeh Deri should not be required to step down from his Cabinet post immediately.

Deri, who heads the fervently Orthodox Shas party, a partner in the Labor government, faces charges of bribery and misappropriation in connection with his personal financial affairs.

The court’s ruling came in the wake of a publicized and highly embarrassing dispute between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and top government lawyers.

Rabin has been rejecting calls for Deri’s immediate removal from the Cabinet, while the lawyers, led by Attorney General Yosef Harish and Justice Minister David Libai, are insisting on it.

The attorney general has formally asked the Knesset to lift Deri’s parliamentary immunity so that charges can be submitted in court.

The Knesset House Committee, which must debate such a request before it is put to a vote of the plenary, has scheduled three days of debates in October.

But meanwhile a number of voluntary public groups concerned with civil rights and electoral reform have applied to the High Court for an order forcing Deri to step down now.

Deri, in a letter to Rabin during the coalition negotiations last summer, promised he would quit his Cabinet post as soon as charges were brought against him. Rabin cites that letter as the reason for his reluctance to force the interior minister out now.

SECESSION OF SHAS FEARED

But political observers say the prime minister fears that any attempt to force Deri’s removal now could trigger the secession of the Shas party, whose six Knesset seats are crucial to the governing coalition’s viability.

Although the government could survive a noconfidence vote without Shas, thanks to the tacit support of the left-wing Arab parties, it needs Shas if it wants to retain a Jewish majority in the Knesset, which will prove important when it comes to pushing through key decisions on the peace process that may lie ahead.

Harish, State Attorney Dorit Beinish and a senior Justice Ministry aide, Nili Arad, told Rabin they were uncomfortable defending his position before the High Court.

Harish agreed that he had approved Deri’s original letter last summer, but argues that now the circumstances have changed. The charge sheet against Deri has been drawn up, following his interrogation by police detectives, and as a result, he should step down, the attorney general said.

Rabin, in an angry response, is reported to have spoken of getting private legal counsel.

In an aside at the Cabinet meeting Sunday, the prime minister reportedly said he had little faith in the state’s legal officials — a remark that triggered strong criticism both within the legal community and among politicians.

But later he relented and allowed Arad to tell the three-justice High Court bench Tuesday of the differences of opinion within the government and to request the 14-day show-cause order.

Some political insiders expect that by that time, Deri will have saved Rabin from his predicament by voluntarily taking leave.

RABIN COURTING ANOTHER PARTY

So far the interior minister says that Rabin himself has turned down that course of action, and also that the spiritual mentor of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, strongly opposes it.

It is in this context, according to political observers, that Rabin has once again begun wooing another fervently Orthodox party to join his government: Agudat Yisrael, the larger component of the United Torah Judaism bloc.

Rabin is hoping that Agudah will join the coalition or at least reach an “abstention agreement” that would guarantee the government Agudah’s votes on key policy issues in return for government funding for the party’s religious institutions and support for religious legislation.

Last week, Rabin met alone for a lengthy conversation with the spiritual leader of Agudah, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, who is the Hasidic rebbe of Gur.

So far, Shas has not formally linked Deri’s fate to its continued presence in the government. Among the six Shas Knesset members, only Aryeh Gamliel consistently advocates secession.

But the court order is expected to increase the pressure on Shas from its political foes — the Degel Ha Torah wing of United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party — which have both sought unsuccessfully for months to force Shas to quit the government.

Deri’s enforced ouster, say political observers, could intensify such pressure and make it harder than ever for Yosef to withstand them.

NEXT STORY