Israel’s Supreme Court Orders Removal of Netanyahu Minister

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Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the appointment of a politician convicted of tax fraud as a senior minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition, a move likely to accelerate a looming showdown between the government and the judiciary over control of the country’s highest court and one that could destabilize the government.

Ten of the 11 judges on the panel ruled against the appointment of the minister, Aryeh Deri, a close Netanyahu ally, on grounds of “extreme unreasonability,” primarily because of his recent conviction and suspended prison sentence, and said the prime minister should remove him from his posts.

The decision comes as Mr. Netanyahu and the judiciary are locked in a battle over the Supreme Court, with the prime minister and his coalition partners seeking to assert more control over legal matters, including the appointment of judges. Those efforts have prompted street protests in cities across Israel in recent weeks, with many Israelis fearing that the judicial changes could undermine the country’s democratic institutions.

Mr. Netanyahu now has to decide if he will respect the court ruling or defy it and head a government that opposition leaders said would be “illegal.”

An initial statement of support for Mr. Deri issued by the government appeared ambiguous regarding next steps, but it suggested that the coalition wanted to find a way to keep the minister in office, or at least keep his party in the coalition.

Praising his “extraordinary abilities and vast experience” and denouncing the “severe personal injustice” of the verdict, the statement said Mr. Deri would continue to play “a central and significant role,” without elaborating.

“We will act in any legal way that is available to us and without delay to correct the injustice and the severe damage caused to the democratic decision and the sovereignty of the people,” the statement added.

Mr. Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was appointed to the powerful positions of interior minister and health minister in the government that was sworn in barely three weeks ago. It is the most far-right and religiously conservative ruling coalition in Israel’s history.

Shas is the second-largest party in the coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud and a key partner for its survival. The 11 seats that Shas won in the November elections make up a crucial part of the government’s majority of 64 in the 120-seat Parliament.

Another Shas minister, Yaakov Margi, told Israel’s public radio hours before the court ruling on Wednesday that “Netanyahu knows that if Deri is not in the government, there is no government.” He later softened the threat, saying that he personally would recommend that Shas withdraw from the government if Mr. Deri could not be a minister.

The Supreme Court decision was keenly awaited, coming amid a stormy national debate over the government’s plans for fundamental judicial changes, including measures to severely curtail the power of the country’s top court and give more power to politicians.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday against the government plans, accusing Mr. Netanyahu of undermining the country’s democratic traditions.

Supporters of the changes have long accused the Supreme Court of being too activist and have presented the Deri case as one pitting unelected judges against the will of the voters. One of the changes the government is working rapidly to push through would strip the top court of the ability to strike down legislation that it deems unreasonable.

Analysts said that one option for Mr. Netanyahu would be to push through legislation to remove the ability of the Supreme Court to rule on the grounds of “reasonableness,” its yardstick for ethical behavior, and then reappoint Mr. Deri as minister.

Soon after the verdict was issued, Mr. Netanyahu went to meet Mr. Deri in his home in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. After the meeting, which lasted about 45 minutes, Mr. Netanyahu said, “

Critics, including the current chief justice, say the judicial changes, if enacted, would severely limit judicial independence and oversight and undermine Israel’s liberal democracy.

The Parliament rushed through a legal amendment after the November election to allow Mr. Deri to become a minister despite his recent conviction for tax fraud. As part of a plea agreement about a year ago, he received a suspended prison sentence.

The law previously barred any politician convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison from taking up a ministerial role for seven years after release. Under the amendment, the seven-year prohibition would apply only if actual jail time was served.

Mr. Deri’s Shas party vehemently attacked the Supreme Court and its verdict, saying in a statement, “Today the court actually ruled that the elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and tainted with extreme unreasonableness.”

“Wide sections of Israeli society today feel excluded by the court,” it said, describing the verdict as “arbitrary and unprecedented” and “a serious violation of the right to vote and be elected, which is the lifeblood of democracy.”

The Supreme Court judges wrote in their ruling that they had based their decision in part on the recidivism of Mr. Deri, who was first convicted in 1999 of taking bribes, fraud and breach of trust while he was a lawmaker and cabinet minister and served two years of a three-year prison sentence. He was released in 2002 and came back onto the political stage in 2011.

The judges also noted that as part of his plea agreement last year, Mr. Deri, then a lawmaker in the opposition, had told the court that he would quit political life and had immediately resigned from Parliament.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.


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