Netanyahu’s top ally can’t be cabinet minister, top Israeli court rules, prompting possible government crisis

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Israel’s top court ruled 10-1 on Wednesday that Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party and a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should not be allowed to serve as a cabinet minister because of a conviction in February 2022 for tax fraud.

Netanyahu should remove Deri from office, the court ruling said. Such a move would risk bringing the country into a political crisis.

Deri’s Shas party – which won 11 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, in November and is a key part of Netanyahu’s coalition – immediately hit back, saying the court decision “irregular and unique.”

Deri (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) pictured on January 8.

The Sephardi religious party said the court “today threw away voices and votes from 400,000 voters for the Shas movement.”

“Today the court has ruled that the elections were meaningless. The court’s decision is political and corrupt,” the party said.

The Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether it was legally reasonable to appoint Deri to positions in Netanyahu’s cabinet despite his tax fraud conviction.

Judges ruled that his post “could not stand.”

“This is, among other things, due to his background of criminal convictions,” and his failure to retire from public life as he said he would when he was sentenced in a tax fraud case.

The underlying legal question is whether Deri’s tax fraud conviction constitutes a crime of moral turpitude. Until the November elections, that would disqualify him from serving in government.

Photo of Deri in the Knesset on December 29.

But Netanyahu and his allies changed the law after their election victory, clearing 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 lawmaker rather than allow the head of the electoral commission to rule on whether the conviction disqualified him from being a minister.

This means that the legal question of whether Deri’s fraud conviction counts as a crime of moral turpitude remains unresolved.

Deri allies have been pointing out this week that the head of the Shas party would not resign from his ministerial position even if the court’s decision was against him.

In a statement to his fellow members gathered at his home, Deri said on Wednesday that he would “continue the revolution even stronger and stronger,” without going into detail.

His refusal to resign – or Netanyahu’s refusal to sack him – could set up a constitutional crisis that will pit the government against the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu and his coalition partners have 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, a majority of four. Deri’s Shas party holds 11 of those 64 seats, so ousting Deri would send the government into crisis.

On Wednesday night local time Netanyahu was seen visiting Deri’s home, spending about 45 minutes inside before leaving again. Netanyahu made no comment to reporters outside.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin – a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party – vowed to intervene on Deri’s behalf.

“I will do everything necessary so that the gross injustice done to Rabbi Aryeh Deri, to the Shas movement and to Israeli democracy is fully rectified,” Levin said.

Levin has already announced plans to reform Israel’s justice system by giving the Knesset the power to control Supreme Court decisions and review appeals to the court.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut – who was among the 10 judges who ruled on Wednesday that Netanyahu should dismiss Deri – said last week the changes recommended as an “unprecedented attack on the legal system.”

Israel has been rocked by political instability in recent years, with Netanyahu narrowly winning 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 been a key figure in a period of prolonged political chaos.

His latest government appears to be the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

Itamar Ben Gvir, a terrorist convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism, became minister of national security. Bezalel Smotrich, who has supported the abolition of the Palestinian Authority and the annexation of the West Bank, became finance minister.

Netanyahu’s last term has gotten off to a rocky start, with tens of thousands of people protesting in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on January 14 against his government’s proposed changes to Israel’s judicial system.

Attendees held signs comparing Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and saying Israel was turning into the likes of semi-democratic Hungary and democratic Iran.

Activists told CNN that they came out of fear for the future of Israel and that they would send a message to Netanyahu that the public will not stand for what they see as the destruction of Israeli democracy.

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