The move marks a setback for the new right-wing coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
By Erin Viner
The 10-to-one Supreme Court verdict forbids leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Deri from becoming a senior minister due to past tax fraud conviction.
“Most of the judges have determined that this appointment is extremely unreasonable and thus the Prime Minister must remove Deri from office,” said a court summary of the ruling.
Deri, who holds the Interior and Health portfolios – and set to later become Finance Minister under a rotation deal – confessed to tax fraud last year in a plea deal that spared him jail time.
Several of the justices in their ruling also cited Deri having previously informed the Magistrate’s Court dealing with his tax case that he would retire from politics.
Political watchdogs had appealed to the court to order Netanyahu to strike down Deri’s appointment given his recent conviction as well as past offenses. In 1999, he was sentenced to three years in jail for taking bribes.
The latest development is likely to further inflame tensions between Netanyahu’s Cabinet and the Supreme Court over government reform plans aimed at reining in the country’s judiciary.
Amajor controversy erupted when Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin – backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – presented a sweeping “reform of governance” earlier this month; that would limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.
While proponents of the changes say they will restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary, critics believe the proposals threaten the country’s democracy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, wants to put controls on the Supreme Court, which members of his religious-nationalist coalition accuse of overreach and elitism.
Opponents, who held mass protests in three Israeli cities last Saturday, argue the plans will cripple judicial independence, foster corruption, set back minority rights and deprive Israel’s courts of credibility that helps fend off war-crimes charges abroad. Further demonstrations are set to be held this coming weekend.
There was no immediate response to Wednesday’s ruling from Netanyahu, who returned to office on 29 December at the head of a hard-right government. But Justice Minister and fellow Likud party member Yariv Levin said the bench had chosen not to respect the people’s choice.
“I will do whatever is necessary to fully repair this glaring injustice done to Rabbi Aryeh Deri, the Shas movement and Israeli democracy,” Levin proclaimed in a statement.
Coalition partners, including the ultra-nationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and current Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, echoed Levin’s remarks by demanding advancement of the reforms, which have yet to be written into law, to be advanced. It is also backed by Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies.
Shas, which draws much of its support from religious Jews of Middle Eastern descent, won 11 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the 1 November election, slammed the verdict against Deri as ‘political, saying, “the court decided today that elections are meaningless.”