Israel’s Supreme Court ruled ten to one on Wednesday not to allow Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party and a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to serve as a cabinet minister due to his February 2022 conviction of tax fraud.
The court ruled that Netanyahu should remove Deri from office. Such a move would plunge the country into a political crisis.
Al-Dari’s Shas party – which won 11 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset in November and is a key component of Netanyahu’s coalition – responded immediately, calling the court’s decision “arbitrary and unprecedented”.
The Sephardi religious party said that the court “today canceled the votes and votes of 400,000 voters from the Shas movement.”
“Today the court has in fact ruled that the elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and malicious,” the party said.
The Supreme Court has been asked to rule on whether it is legally reasonable to appoint Deri to positions in Netanyahu’s government despite his tax fraud conviction.
The judges decided that his appointment “could not continue.”
“This is, among other things, due to his backlog of criminal convictions,” and his failure to retire from public life as he said he would when he was tried in the tax fraud case.
The primary legal question is whether Deri’s conviction for tax fraud constituted a crime of moral turpitude. Until the November elections, that would have disqualified him from serving in the government.
But Netanyahu and his allies made a change to the law in the wake of their election victory, paving the way for Deri to become minister.
Deri was a member of the Knesset at the time of his tax fraud conviction last year.
He resigned as a legislator rather than give the Chief Election Commissioner an opportunity to decide whether the conviction disqualified him from serving as a minister.
This means that the legal question of whether Deri’s fraud conviction constitutes a crime against honor remains unresolved.
Deri’s allies indicated this week that the leader of the Shas party would not resign from his ministerial position even if the court ruling was against him.
In a statement he made to his fellow party members gathered at his home, Deri said on Wednesday that he would “continue the revolution with greater strength and with greater force,” without elaborating.
His refusal to resign – or Netanyahu’s refusal to fire him – could lead to a constitutional crisis that pits the government against the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu and his coalition partners hold 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, with a majority of four. And Deri’s Shas party holds 11 seats out of 64, so Deri’s dismissal would plunge the government into a crisis.
On Wednesday evening local time, Netanyahu was seen visiting Deri’s home, spending about 45 minutes inside before leaving again. Netanyahu made no comment to reporters who were outside.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin – a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party – vowed to intervene on Deri’s behalf.
“I will do whatever is necessary so that the blatant injustice of Rabbi Aryeh Deri, the Shas movement and Israeli democracy will be corrected,” Levin said.
Levin has already announced plans to transform Israel’s justice system by giving the Knesset the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions and review nominations for the court.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut — who was among the 10 justices who ruled Wednesday that Netanyahu should sack Deri — called the proposed changes last week a “wild attack on the legal system.”
Israel has experienced political instability in recent years, with Netanyahu scoring a narrow victory in Israel’s fifth election in less than four years in November.
Netanyahu, who was sworn in as prime minister for the sixth time in his career at the end of December, has remained a dominant figure during a protracted period of political chaos.
His latest government is likely to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
Itamar Ben Gvir, an extremist convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting racism against Arabs, became Minister of National Security. Bezalel Smotrich, who supported the abolition of the Palestinian Authority and the annexation of the West Bank, became Minister of Finance.
Netanyahu’s final term in office is off to a rocky start, with tens of thousands demonstrating in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on January 14 against changes his government has proposed to Israel’s judicial system.
Those present carried banners comparing Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and saying that Israel is turning to the likes of quasi-democratic Hungary and theocratic Iran.
The protesters told CNN they came out of fear for the future of Israel and to send a message to Netanyahu that the public will not support what they see as a dismantling of Israeli democracy.
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