Jerusalem — Wednesday, Israel’s highest court ruled that a prominent member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s freshly formed government cannot serve as a minister due to a recent conviction for tax cheating. The coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the ruling and pledged to move forward with controversial changes that will undermine the Supreme Court and its authority to strike down laws.
Following Israel’s November 1 election, Netanyahu returned to power last month at the helm of a coalition comprising extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
According to a summary of the court’s verdict, his appointment of Aryeh Deri as health and interior minister “could not stand” since it was “extremely unreasonable,” The justices ruled 10-1 that Netanyahu must remove Deri from his office.
Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri (center) reacts as he sits between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin on January 8, 2023, during a weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem
Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, pleaded to tax cheating last year, was fined 180,000 shekels ($50,000), and resigned his membership in the Knesset. The judges stated that Deri gave the impression that he wanted to withdraw from politics in order to receive a reduced punishment. He ran again for office in the November election.
In Israel, which lacks a constitution, the Supreme Court has the power to overturn legislation or government decisions that it deems discriminatory or irrational.
Legislators enacted legislation last month that permits anyone convicted of crimes but not given a prison sentence to serve as a clergyman.
Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel introduces a new right-wing coalition government at 03:54
Deri’s Shas party characterized the court’s judgment as “political,” “extremely unreasonable” and “unprecedented,” but refrained from taking any measures in response. It stated that the decision “threw away the voices and votes of 400,000 Shas supporters” and rendered the elections “meaningless.”
The minister of justice, Yariv Levin, criticized the verdict as “absurd.”
Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, unveiled a controversial plan to restructure Israel’s judicial system earlier this month, including giving parliament more authority in nominating judges and overriding Supreme Court decisions.
In recent days, the move has sparked massive demonstrations in Jerusalem and other cities by Israelis who believe the proposed policies of the new government coalition pose a threat to democracy and human rights in the country.
At Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 14, 2023, protesters gather to demonstrate against the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency/Getty
Levin stated on Wednesday that he will do whatever is required to rectify the injustice done to Deri, Shas, and Israeli democracy.
If Netanyahu does not dismiss Deri, opposition leader Yair Lapid warned, “the Israeli government would be violating the law”
Ex-prime minister Lapid said in a statement, “A government that does not obey they law is an illegal government and cannot expect citizens to obey the law,”
The coalition parties’ leaders hinted in an united statement that they had no intention of opposing the ruling, therefore Deri’s party can remain in the government.
The statement decried a “We will act in any legal way at our disposal and without delay to amend the injustice,” by stating, “harsh blow to the democratic decision… of the people.”
Deri, who was born in Morocco, is a seasoned politician who co-founded Shas and has held a Knesset seat and many ministerial positions over the past few decades. During the middle of the current term, he was to become finance minister while continuing to serve as deputy premier.
Netanyahu is currently facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, all of which he rejects.