Israel's New Interior Minister Resisted Everything but Temptation

When he returned to the government in 2015, former Interior Minister Arye Dery was determined not to revisit the scene of the crime. So what changed?

Arye Dery faces the camera during a meeting, October 2015.
Alex Kolomoisky

There was no more ardent, articulate or believable advocate, no one who could be more persuasive, emotional and well reasoned regarding why Arye Dery should not be allowed to return to the Interior Ministry than the man himself.

In media interviews and private conversations with journalists after the government was formed last year, Dery sounded sincere as he explained his reasoning in characteristically heated fashion and with that familiar tone of supplication. He understood the public’s distaste for someone convicted of bribery going back to “the scene of the crime.” He didn’t want to have to fight for his appointment before the High Court of Justice. There was also the mental maturity and judgment with which he had returned to the political arena after a hiatus of some 13 years.

But eight months have passed since then – an eternity in Israel – and the circumstances have changed. Dery was forced to leave the powerful and well-funded Economy and Industry Ministry because of issues relating to the natural gas framework, and make do instead with a modest mini-ministry: the “periphery ministry,” which has few funds and whose purpose isn’t entirely clear.

There he was, sitting around the cabinet table and looking at his fellow party chairmen: Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi, eight Knesset seats) is education and Diaspora affairs minister. Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu, 10 seats) is finance minister-plus, with endless authority in the realm of housing. And he, poor thing, with seven seats, is left with the poor man’s bony lamb. Not even a whole lamb; barely a leg.

The forced resignation of Silvan Shalom as interior minister put the temptation in front of Dery once again. And this time he could not resist.

The question is not whether Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) or Zehava Galon (Meretz) will condemn the appointment (they did not). And the question is not why Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid – who just a year ago was yelling “You’re a convicted criminal! Don’t go back to politics! You need rehabilitation!” at Dery in Channel 2’s TV studio – wrote a semi-philosophical, convoluted and “principled” Facebook post yesterday on the issue of politics and moral turpitude.

Lapid, it seems, is trying to conjure up some alternative reality in which he establishes a government together with Shas. As part of this delusionary scenario, he has recently been playing the part of a believing, traditional person.

But the question is not what the coalition or opposition politicians say, or even what the High Court decides. The question is what the Israeli public will think of the minister and the government.

Dery is far from popular. He arouses resentment and antagonism, sometimes unjustified, but that’s the way it is. He is one of the less popular government ministers. Returning to the Interior Ministry – with its powers relating to Shabbat bylaws and personal status – is akin to peeing from the diving board. It will ignite the old argument about ethics and politics. It will bring back memories of his conviction and incarceration. It will bring the issue back to the courtroom, and put him back in the eye of the storm – all the tribulations he seemed happy to avoid in the last round, as he himself explained so eloquently all those months ago.