Shas party leader Arye Dery is a criminal. Now all that’s left is to decide his punishment. But his plea bargain is an indication that it’s not a punishment but rather a convenient payment plan. The proposed agreement would allow Dery to resign from the Knesset and pay a fine, but he wouldn’t be sentenced to actual prison time and might not be disqualified from running in the next Knesset election, the date of which, according to the Israeli system, is not yet known.
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The primary issue over which Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the prosecution are deliberating is whether to insist that Dery be found to have committed an offense involving moral turpitude, which would bar him from serving in public office for seven years. Any such deliberation is unnecessary and insulting.
To demonstrate the substance of moral turpitude, it’s worth quoting Judge Aryeh Romanoff, who at the 2010 trial of former cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi explained his decision to find Hanegbi guilty of the offense as follows: “With moral turpitude, the legislature was seeking to prevent harm to the standing of the Knesset if someone whose reputation was stained were to be a member of it. The goal is to maintain public hygiene and clean hands,” the judge wrote. “Moral turpitude is not aimed at punishing the person but rather protecting the body in which he is serving, and therefore his character, talents, abilities and his contribution to society as well as the harm caused him as a result of the handling of his case are not relevant.”
In other words, moral turpitude is a tool to defend against swindlers, criminals, liars, embezzlers and tax evaders who are in public office by making it possible to remove them from government activity.
Dery isn’t an innocent man who mistakenly strayed from the straight and narrow, and is deserving of the public’s compassion and another chance to prove his integrity. He’s a habitual criminal who has already done a stint in prison following his conviction for bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust. He was removed from the public sphere and then returned to it, to a senior position as interior minister, the same office in which he was serving when he committed his previous crimes.
Commenting on the case of a lawyer who committed a crime of moral turpitude, Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak put it as follows: “Violating the country’s laws, which is evidence of disregard and disrespect for the law, can be seen as an offense involving moral turpitude; an offense that is evidence of flawed character or an absence of control over impulse or of a distorted ethical outlook regarding the role of the lawyer and the law in society can be seen as an offense involving moral turpitude.”
One can conclude that if that’s true for a lawyer, it’s true all the more for a Knesset member, a cabinet minister, a prime minister or a president. Dery’s repeat criminality is apparently at least evidence of his lack of ability to control his impulses and of a distorted view of his status as a public official.
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But the law doesn’t define moral turpitude, which is rooted in a concept involving ethical interpretation instead of legal definitions. Legal criteria have an evasive character. They depend upon the circumstances and the time and place, as Prof. Ruth Gavison was good enough to point out.
“The concept of moral turpitude is not derived from the field of law but rather the field of ethics. Ethical outlooks have two flaws from the standpoint of consistency and clarity. By their nature, they change from time to time and from place to place, and by their nature, they differ from person to person and from judge to judge,” she said.
In that case, the judges considering Dery’s plea bargain have wide discretion not only over whether to approve the deal but also whether his offense constitutes moral turpitude and requires protecting the public and the institution that represents it – the Knesset. The public has been waiting six years for the results of the investigation and the attorney general’s decision. It was only in January of this year that Mendelblit decided to charge Dery.
During that entire time, a delay that caused injustice to a public which has the right to be led by leaders with integrity, Dery continued to serve as a cabinet minister. A failure to impose a finding of moral turpitude on Dery would be insulting and show contempt for that public. Dery must not return to the Knesset and let the public suffer the shame.