The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court convicted Shas party chair and former Interior Minister Arye Dery of tax offenses Tuesday in a plea bargain reached with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Dery resigned from the Knesset to avoid the designation of moral turpitude. In contrast to his 1999 conviction for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which led to a three-year prison term (of which he served two years), this time there was no battle against detectives and prosecutors, no protest tests, no demonstrations – not even the addition of a new verse to the song “He’s Innocent.” Perhaps legal experts told him to surrender, perhaps he simply learned that most Israelis no longer believe he was framed.
Dery was convicted the day that former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, the judge who convicted him of bribery in 1999, was buried. Naor will be remembered for many of her rulings, but the most important of them may have been the one convicting the heads of Israel’s four biggest banks for manipulating their share prices and sentencing them to prison. (The Supreme Court overturned the custodial sentences on appeal).
The importance of this ruling lies in two aspects: First, she clarified the gravity of the actions of the bankers, who artificially inflated the banks’ value while using all their resources, causing tremendous damage to trust in the banking system and financial losses that forced the government to close the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange for 20 days and create an arrangement for compensating the public.
The second, and equally important, aspect, touches on both the Dery case and that of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial in three separate cases. Although Naor faced the most powerful figures in Israel’s economy, and perhaps its politics at the time, as well, she didn’t let the power of bankers like Ernst Japhet and Raphael Recanati confuse her – and treated their crimes very harshly.
In the process of building and establishing the position of Israel’s legal system, the verdict in the bankers’ trial sent an important message about equality before the law, which is blind to social and class distinctions.
Dery has undoubtedly been one of Israel’s most powerful politicians for three decades. He was a member of several cabinets, was close to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even closer to Netanyahu. Naor’s ruling in the bankers’ trial should have made it clear to him that in Israel there are no exemptions, no dispensations for the powerful – not for bankers, not for politicians. But he realized this only when his battle failed. This time he knew the score going in, and did not wage a rearguard action against the law enforcement system.
His friend Netanyahu, on the other hand, is still struggling to accept this notion. His war is currently directed against the police (“investigate the investigators”) and the State Prosecutor’s Office (“they’re framing me”), but as the trial continues, the judges may also find themselves in his sights. That’s not a sufficient reason to offer him a plea bargain.
- Former Israeli Supreme Court President Miriam Naor Laid to Rest in Jerusalem
- Shas Leader Dery Convicted of Tax Offenses as Part of Plea Deal
- Netanyahu Plea Deal: Mercy, Not Exoneration
Anyone with great power, whether economic or political, must conclude from Naor’s harsh verdict in the bankers’ trials that political/economic power does not grant protection from the rule of law. Are you powerful? You had better be particularly careful when you use this power to the detriment of the public and for your own personal benefit. Although Dery’s persecution theory (in his first trial) and that of Netanyahu fall on attentive ears, the listeners would do well to recall rulings like those in the bankers’ trial and the trials of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and powerful businessman Nochi Dankner.
This is why the Netanyahu cases – in which Yedioth Aharonoth publisher Arnon Mozes and former Bezeq controlling shareholders Shaul and Iris Elovitch are defendants – must be seen through, without plea bargains that would prevent a genuine inquiry into and clarification of the relationship among business, government and the media.