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Netanyahu submits to Court order

Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri was fired due to his recent tax conviction.

By Erin Viner

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed his senior minister in compliance with a Supreme Court ruling – even while in pursuit of controversial judicial reforms intended to curb its powers.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader had also been set to later become Finance Minister under a rotation deal.

He confessed to tax fraud last year in a plea deal that spared him jail time. Moreover, he was sentenced in 1999 to serve three years in jail for accepting $155,000 in bribes during a preceding term as Interior Minister, although he was released after just 22 months for good behavior.

Political watchdog organizations had appealed to the court to order Netanyahu to strike down Deri’s appointment due to his criminal offenses.

“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 10-to-one verdict handed down last week.

Several of the justices also cited an earlier claim by the 63-year-old politician to the Magistrate’s Court dealing with his tax case that he would retire from politics.

Deri was born in Morocco, and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1968.

According to an official transcript of the weekly Cabinet session, Netanyahu described the Deri ruling as “regrettable” and “indifferent to the public will,” while pledging to find “every legal means” of returning the disgraced politician to public office in the future.

A Deri confidant, Barak Seri, told Army Radio yesterday that both the Interior and Health portfolios would be reassigned to other members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas as it remains in the coalition.

Deri’s dismissal is the latest of a series of setbacks for the new right-wing coalition government, and likely to exacerbate tensions between Netanyahu’s Cabinet and the Supreme Court over the government reform plans.

Fury erupted when  Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin – backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  – presented a sweeping “reform of governance” earlier this month; aimed at limiting Supreme Court  rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.

Proposed revisions include a simple 61 majority vote by the 120-seat parliament to provide lawmakers with a greater role in the appointment of the Supreme Court judges. Until now, the justices have been appointed and dismissed by the Judicial Appointments Committee that consists of professionals, lawmakers and other judges. The new plan would afford MKs a majority in that committee – primarily from the ruling right-wing and religiously conservative government. Such a move would transform current composition of the nine-member Supreme Court from just three members of the Netanyahu coalition to a majority of five.

Another major shift would grant parliament effective ‘veto power’ to override court verdicts, which Levin characterized as a more “balanced” arrangement that would end the “striking down of Knesset laws without authority.”

It would also remove a “reasonableness” clause used by the court in the review of government decisions; and lastly, permit coalition ministers to appoint their own legal advisers rather than submit to counsel from advisers operating under the Justice Ministry.

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 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 over the past three weekends, 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.

A poll published by the Israel Hayom newspaper found that with 45% of respondents opposed Netanyahu’s bid to shake up the system for bench appointments, with only 35% in support. Other findings included just 26% support for his government’s bid to enable the Knesset to override some Supreme Court decisions with a single-vote majority.