Exposing the Ugly Cobwebs of Deceit in Israel

'Deri’s Curse' is a knockout, a must-read for every citizen who wants to know what kind of place he’s living in.

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Klalat Deri (Deri’s Curse‏), by Mordechai Gilat
Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Hebrew, 456 pages; NIS 94 ‏

There would seem to be no need for this book. Why return to the scene of the crime?

After all, Aryeh Deri was convicted of bribery and fraud fairly recently, only 15 years ago, and the scandal surrounding the politician who led Shas at the time remains etched in personal and public memory.

Many of us remember living through it. I myself was a government insider at the time; what could this book tell me that I don’t already know? But Mordechai Gilat, a veteran investigative reporter, strikes again and manages to surprise us.

“Deri’s Curse” is a knockout, a must-read for every citizen who wants to know what kind of place he’s living in.

Even without any noisy new facts, this book had to be written and published. Time passes, and the full picture fades and blurs. Details get lost − and the details are where the devil is. “Appalling” is the only word for what happened here, right under our noses, and we can’t be certain that the embers have gone completely cold. The coals of corruption and corruptibility hiss and may decide to burst into flames at any moment, anywhere. The pyromaniacs haven’t gone away; they haven’t even been replaced. The protagonists in the affair are still riding into the national sunset, and their hoof beats may yet thunder. They are here.

The book is the product of a journalistic investigation carried out at the time of the affair, against all odds. Powerful figures in politics and the media incessantly tried to hamper Gilat’s research; everyone overstepped his bounds. Even the Shin Bet security service was enlisted to save the skin of political criminal No. 1.

How did Aryeh Deri fail to thwart the investigation of his doings as a young man, despite overt and covert threats made on his behalf? How did he fail to block the police investigation, despite a ton of pressure? How did then-State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat wise up and brush away the cobwebs of deceit woven around her in order to discover the truth? How were the attempts to frighten Dorit Beinisch, at the time the state prosecutor, and her successor, Edna Arbel, foiled? How were the repeated demands to replace the police investigatory team headed by the blameless Meir Gilboa repelled?

Who still remembers that Deri maintained his right to remain silent for two years, even as he continued to serve as a government minister? That Deri did not manage to see the last of Attorney General Yosef Harish until his immunity was revoked? That Harish’s successor, Michael Ben-Yair, disappointed all the malicious hopes pinned on his appointment that he would make the scandal go away? That Roni Bar-On, the designated successor to Ben-Yair, who was expected to accept a plea bargain with Deri that would have kept the latter out of jail, saw the attorney general’s seat up close but was unable to sit on it?

A state prosecution witness, Yaakov Shmulevitz, did not collapse on the witness stand. Deri’s mother-in-law by adoption in New York, Esther Werderber, did not perjure herself in writing, by confirming, as the defense claimed, that she had willingly given the young Deri couple money. A plea bargain − in which Deri did not admit to receiving bribes − was never acted upon. The libel claim against Mordechai Gilat and his colleague Molly Kempner was dismissed out of hand, to the disgrace of its filers. An amnesty law was not passed by the Knesset, and another, the so-called “Deri law,” allowing prisoners to be released after serving a half-sentence, failed to help Deri.

The justices of the Supreme Court forced Deri to resign from the cabinet, and later upheld his conviction in the district court. “A lifestyle based on bribery,” the district court judges wrote in their decision. They too were persecuted: the late Judge Yaacov Zemach, for example, was attacked verbally to the bitter end. And even he, a religiously observant Mizrahi Jew and old friend of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, was accused of discriminating against Deri for his Mizrahi origins and political affiliation.

Tripled his money

A promising young man, Deri literally doubled and then tripled his money and property during his five years of public service. In 1999 he was convicted of taking bribes, and of fraud and breach of trust while serving as interior minister and MK, and he was sentenced to three years in prison. The late Arie Caspi, the author of a highly regarded column in Haaretz, summed up the situation very well: “Aryeh Deri began to steal from the public till from the moment he became a public figure, from his early youth.” In the end he stole his way to a conviction and prison time.

Deri, who was released in July 2002 after serving two years, was and remains dangerous to the public not only because he himself is corrupt, but also, and mainly, because he corrupted everyone around him.

It is enough to look over the list of his cronies and favor-seekers to prove this: former President Moshe Katsav, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, incumbent Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; and former ministers or MKs Shlomo Dayan, Tzachi Hanegbi, Ofer Hugi, Yair Peretz, Raphael Pinchasi, Haim Ramon and Salah Tarif. All but Lieberman and Olmert − the former currently under investigation, the latter on trial − have been convicted of various crimes. And there are many more friends of Deri holding the state in their grip, who have been pulling it for almost a decade toward the maelstrom. ‏(Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly missed witnessing his own downfall more than a decade ago in the so-called “Bar-On Hebron”‏ affair.)

Many villains are easy to spot. But sometimes the danger comes from the well-intentioned people who are easy to manipulate. Amnon Rubinstein is a good example. No one doubts the former education minister and longtime Knesset member’s honesty and clear thinking. And yet, paradoxically, in September 1993, at the same time as Yitzhak Rabin was signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat, he agreed to serve as the prime minister’s messenger to speak to then-Justice Minister David Libai about replacing Yosef Harish as attorney general with Michael Ben-Yair before Harish had finished preparing an indictment for Deri. And all in the name of “peace.”

Yitzhak Rabin, it turns out, played a major role in the scandal. Although he was never known as an authority on public ethics and never pretended to be one, I was nonetheless surprised to learn he attempted to keep Deri from being indicted. This is the book’s big scoop, based on Gilat’s conversations with Yosef Harish. Rabin pressured Harish, threatening to fire him for good, if he didn’t aid in the treachery. “Don’t indict him,” Rabin told Harish, “because other people are doing the same thing. He isn’t the biggest thief in the country.” There are those who gain the world in an hour, and those who lose it at the same time.

Rabin was heir to an ancient dynasty that believes, “If the bull wants to run the race, let him,” better known these days as: If you hear the wings of peace, embrace the criminal under your wing. Short memories forget that Shas never actually delivered the promised goods of peace. Deri was the first to understand the principle that it’s better to be a dove when being investigated, for “even if your sins be as scarlet,” the left will make you white as snow, to paraphrase Isaiah.

The media came out inglorious in this affair too. Many journalists revealed their ugly side; the good ones had their thinking, or something else, corrupted. Chapter 36 of this book is highly recommended for familiarizing oneself with the people who gathered in a private apartment in the Tel Aviv area seeking advice on how to promote Deri’s retrial bid, and how to sell it to the public. “Amnon Dankner had an operative suggestion,” Gilat reports. “To send attorney Yigal Arnon for a one-on-one interview on television.” Dankner also named the preferred interviewer: his friend Dan Margalit, then serving as the moderator of the “Popolitika” political talk show and, Gilat writes, “numbered among the senior journalists who supported Deri and still believed his story.”

Another suggestion was offered. In order to carry out the groundwork for a retrial, “there is a need to use the names of people considered especially honest,” one of the participants said. “The names of serious people were raised at the meeting,” Gilat says, “Yossi Sarid, Shulamit Aloni, Kenneth Mann, Mordechai Kremnitzer, Ruth Gavison, Meni Mautner, Benny Begin. Impressive names that, of course, remained only on paper. And even those who suggested them, I am convinced, didn’t believe that they would respond positively.”

Deri was tried and convicted unanimously by six judges. His request for a retrial was rejected by the president of the Supreme Court at the time, Aharon Barak. Now Deri is planning a political comeback, with or without Shas. Other members of his troupe will return with him − why not? − and they too are innocent in the eyes of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his followers. Who knows whom we’ll see among them?

Deri’s right of return depends on our duty to forgive and forget. But what can we forgive if he never admitted that he was corrupt, if he never apologized or expressed regret? “He has paid his debt to society” is the accepted claim when clearing politicians of the slew of offenses they have behind them. But those who refresh their memory by reading “Deri’s Curse” are bound to conclude that the debt here is so big that even an entire lifetime − whether his or ours − will not suffice to repay it.

Before the next Independence Day, perhaps we should consider awarding Mordechai Gilat the Israel Prize for journalism.

Yossi Sarid, a former Knesset member and education minister, is a regular columnist for Haaretz.

Aryeh Deri, right, with Roni Bar-On, 1999. Bar-On saw the attorney general’s seat up close but was unable to sit on it.Credit: Alon Ron
Aryeh DeriCredit: Alon Ron