Netanyahu Fires a Top Minister to Comply With a Supreme Court Ruling

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Sunday dismissed a senior minister recently convicted of tax fraud to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that disqualified the minister from serving, shaking the right-wing government just weeks after it came to power.

By complying with the court’s ruling to remove the minister, Aryeh Deri, Mr. Netanyahu avoided an instant, head-on clash with the judiciary at a time when the country is already locked in a fierce debate over government plans for a judicial overhaul. Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against the plans to limit the judiciary’s powers, seen by many as a challenge to Israel’s democratic system. About 130,000 protesters came out on Saturday night in Tel Aviv and other cities, according to the Israeli news media.

“I am forced, with a heavy heart, great sorrow and a very difficult feeling, to remove you from your position as a minister in the government,” Mr. Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Mr. Deri that the prime minister read out in his weekly cabinet meeting, with Mr. Deri in attendance.

“I intend to seek any legal way for you to be able to continue to contribute to the state of Israel with your great experience and skills, in accordance with the will of the people,” Mr. Netanyahu added.

But Mr. Netanyahu, himself on trial for corruption, faces the predicament of how to compensate Mr. Deri, the leader of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, and a close political ally whose support is key to the stability and survival of the coalition government.

A veteran politician, Mr. Deri was one of the most experienced and politically moderate ministers in what has shaped up to be the most far-right and religiously conservative coalition in Israel’s history. The 11 seats that Shas won in the November elections are crucial to the government’s majority in the 120-member Parliament; the coalition parties together control 64 seats.

Mr. Deri had been serving as interior minister and health minister despite his conviction last year and a suspended prison sentence imposed under a plea agreement. Ten of the 11 judges on Israel’s highest court ruled against Mr. Deri’s appointment on grounds of what judges called “extreme unreasonability,” primarily because of his recent case.

The panel also took into account a past conviction, in 1999, when Mr. Deri was found guilty of charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust while he was serving as a lawmaker and cabinet minister. For that, he served two years of a three-year prison term and, after his release, was barred from public and political life for several years.

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

The judges argued that Mr. Deri’s lawyers had tried to mislead the Supreme Court regarding the terms of the plea agreement by stating that there had been a misunderstanding and that he had not meant to quit for good.

Mr. Deri, 63, was born in Morocco and emigrated to Israel as a child with his family. He was one of the founders of Shas in the 1980s, and after running in the 1988 elections, he became the interior minister in Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s government.

At 29, Mr. Deri was the youngest minister in Israel’s history. In 1993, after he was charged with accepting bribes, the Supreme Court first ruled that a politician under indictment could not serve as a minister. He was forced to take a nearly decade-long timeout after his release from prison in 2002, and he returned to the political stage in 2011.

There was no immediate indication that this latest termination of Mr. Deri’s term as a minister would bring down the government, despite earlier threats from other Shas politicians.

A protest in Tel Aviv this month against the government’s proposed judicial measures. The ruling against Mr. Deri has deepened divisions over the proposals.Credit…Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Mr. Deri is allowed to remain a lawmaker and continues to lead his party. Other Shas politicians with a similar outlook are likely to fill the ministerial posts he vacated, but analysts said that Mr. Deri would continue to call the shots in government matters involving the party’s other ministers and lawmakers.

To accommodate Mr. Deri, some analysts have suggested that Mr. Netanyahu could keep him in the cabinet as an observer or that the government’s lawmakers could vote for its own dissolution, and then immediately form a new administration in which Mr. Deri would be made an “alternate” prime minister — an appointment that experts say would be harder for judges to block.

Shas draws much of its support from working-class, traditional and Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, promising to empower them. Soon after the Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, Mr. Deri said that he was “committed to continuing the revolution” with more force than ever.

“They close the door on us, so we will enter through the window. They close the window on us, so we will break in through the ceiling,” he said, in an apparent reference to the judiciary.

The new government wants to make a number of changes that would weaken the power of the judiciary.

The proposals include one that would give the government the upper hand in the selection of judges, and another that reduces the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in the Parliament.

That measure would allow the Parliament to override such court decisions with the narrowest majority of 61 out of 120 members. The government also wants to remove the Supreme Court judges’ ability to use the vaguely defined ethical standard of “unreasonability” to strike down legislation, government decisions or appointments.

The court ruling disqualifying Mr. Deri has only deepened the division in Israel over the proposed judicial changes, strengthening the resolve of supporters of the changes who say that they are necessary to correct an imbalance of power between the Supreme Court and the politicians by reducing the influence of unelected judges in favor of the elected government.

Critics say that the proposed changes would weaken the independence of the top court, severely reduce judicial oversight and remove the protections it provides for minorities, turning Israel into a democracy in name only, where the majority rules unhindered.

“Now is the dark hour. Now is the moment to stand up and cry out,” David Grossman, a leading Israeli author and liberal voice, told the crowd at the protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

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