Analysis

Could Israel's Rapist Ex-president Become Education Minister?

Lawyers trying to unseat interior minister, who 'returned to the scene of the crime,' have troubling questions about ex-con ministers.

Aryeh Deri and Moshe Katzav.
Olivier Fitoussi, Nir Keidar

Will we become like India? That was the question that was asked in a Jerusalem courtroom on Monday, where the High Court of Justice was hearing a petition by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel seeking to overturn Arye Dery’s appointment as interior minister. 

India is the only other country in the world in which a man convicted of a crime has been appointed a minister. It is also ranked 76th on the global corruption index. Israel is ranked 32nd, with plenty of room to fall.

The usual faces were present in the courtroom. One was attorney Eliad Shraga, who submitted a petition a few months ago asking the court to overturn Dery’s previous appointment as economy minister. A three-justice bench rejected that petition, saying the appointment was on the brink of being so unreasonable as to be illegal, but not quite over it.

In his new petition, Shraga argues that the line has been crossed – that “the criminal has returned to the scene of his crime,” meaning to the very job he held when he took the bribes of which he was convicted.

To Shraga’s right sat attorney Dana Briskman of the state prosecution’s High Court department. That department’s luster has been greatly dulled in recent years, as its attorneys have devoted themselves unreservedly to legitimizing every lunacy perpetrated by successive Netanyahu governments, from requests to delay the evacuation of illegal West Bank settlement outposts to approving a deal with the natural gas monopoly and appointing Dery as interior minister.

Criminal defense attorney Navot Tel Zur, who has accompanied Dery ever since his first encounter with the law, was also there, equipped with quotes from the Book of Genesis and Victor Hugo, which conveyed the message that a healthy society ought to forgive and forget the past crimes of its criminals.

In the third row sprawled Dery’s brother, seasoned attorney Shlomo Dery, who has followed his elder brother like a shadow from the criminal cases to the longed-for return to the corridors of power. The attorney and real estate broker was recently appointed to the position of deputy chairman of Keren Kayemeth leIsrael – the Jewish National Fund. 

When the hearing ended, attorneys Tel Zur and Briskman smiled at each other with what looked from the sidelines like mutual satisfaction. The polite way in which the three Supreme Court justices conducted the hearing, the few questions they posed, the occasional rousing of Justice Yoram Danziger, who didn’t utter a word, all seemed to indicate that this petition, too, was headed for the grave.

“The Economy Ministry controls larger budgets,” hinted the head of the panel, Justice Salim Joubran.

But despite these telling signs, it’s still too soon to bet on the petition’s outcome. The issue is too important and too fundamental to make it possible to predict the result just by measuring Justice Danziger’s level of alertness or the brief comments by justices Joubran and Neal Hendel. 

“Would you uphold the appointment of Mordechai Vanunu as head of the Atomic Energy Commission?” Shraga asked the justices, referring to the man convicted of divulging Israel’s nuclear secrets. And when President Moshe Katsav finishes serving his sentence for rape, Shraga continued, and the seven years during which he is barred from politics thereafter are over, “would you agree to his serving as education minister?” These questions were left hanging in the courtroom air.

More than 20 years ago, a High Court of Justice bench led by the court’s then-president, Meir Shamgar, ruled that Dery’s continued tenure as interior minister was so unreasonable as to be illegal in light of the indictment filed against him for taking bribes. Since then, the norm has changed, and every minister who is indicted immediately resigns from the cabinet. 

Now, a more passive court is being asked to untangle a no less complex knot: Is it reasonable for a minister to return to the very cabinet post where he went astray the last time? State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, that most establishment of prosecutors, thought this outcome would be unreasonable in the extreme.

Either way, we can expect drama here. For even if the justices reject the petition, they will set an international precedent. A thriller with this plot would be hard to find in any other country – not even in the rulings of the Indian courts.