Israel’s top court has ordered prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove a key cabinet ally, intensifying a stand-off over Israel’s legal order with his hardline government which has pledged to curb the judiciary’s powers.
The High Court said that Aryeh Deri, head of the ultraorthodox Shas party who currently holds the interior and health ministry portfolios, could not serve as a minister because of his previous criminal convictions.
Deri was convicted last year of tax fraud and received a suspended sentence after a plea deal. He also served a jail term in the early 2000s following a conviction for taking bribes during a previous stint as interior minister.
“Most of the panel’s judges determined that this appointment was extremely unreasonable, and that therefore the prime minister should remove Deri from his post,” the court said in a statement following its 10-to-one verdict on Wednesday.
The High Court also said that Deri had told the court dealing with his tax fraud case that he planned to quit politics.
The ruling drew a furious response from Netanyahu’s hardline coalition of extreme right and ultra-religious parties elected late last year. Shas is the second-largest grouping in the coalition and one of its MPs warned before the ruling that, without Deri, there would be “no government”.
Justice minister Yariv Levin vowed to “do everything necessary to fully repair the terrible injustice done to Rabbi Aryeh Deri, Shas and Israeli democracy”. Shas accused the court of a “political” decision that undermined the will of its voters.
However, former prime minister Yair Lapid, who heads the largest opposition party Yesh Atid, urged Netanyahu to remove Deri, warning that, if he did not, Israel would find itself in a constitutional crisis.
“If Aryeh Deri is not removed, the Israeli government will be breaking the law. A government that does not obey the law is an illegal government. It can no longer demand that citizens obey the law,” he wrote on Twitter.
The ruling comes as Netanyahu’s administration attempts to push through a sweeping overhaul of the judiciary that would give the government and its allies control over the appointment of judges, and allow a simple majority in parliament to override High Court decisions to strike down laws. The shake-up would also stop the court using the “reasonability” standard that it applied to Deri’s appointment in assessing government decisions.
Proponents of the plan argue that it is necessary to rein in a judiciary that has become excessively activist and pushed a broadly left-wing agenda over the past three decades.
However, critics, which include the opposition and numerous serving and former judicial officials, regard the proposals as a politically motivated attempt to undermine Israel’s checks and balances. Tens of thousands of people took part in a rally in Tel Aviv at the weekend against the plans.
Amir Fuchs, a legal expert from the Israel Democracy Institute, said he expected Netanyahu to comply with the order, but that the government was likely to then look for ways for Deri to be reinstated.
Shortly after the election, coalition MPs approved a legal change to allow people who had been convicted of crimes but spared jail time to serve as ministers, a move widely seen as an attempt to enable Deri’s appointment.
“This is our basic problem in Israel,” said Fuchs. “All our laws . . . can be changed with a [simple parliamentary] majority. Just as they changed the rules for Deri a few weeks ago, they might change more rules for Deri now.”