Judicial dispute in Israel escalates

EA drastic decision by Israel’s Supreme Court is likely to intensify the power struggle between the new government and the judiciary. The court announced on Wednesday afternoon that Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri should not be a member of the cabinet. The judges justified this with his previous convictions for corruption.

Christian Meier

Political correspondent for the Middle East and Northeast Africa.

The decision comes at a time when the government is planning sweeping changes to the justice system. Above all, these would weaken the Supreme Court and severely curtail its powers to review laws. Representatives of the judiciary, including court president Esther Hajut, have castigated the plans in harsh terms.

Announcing the decision on Wednesday, Hajut said Deri had been convicted three times, “and failed in his duty to serve the public loyally and lawfully in the exercise of high public office.” It contradicts “principles of ethical action and legality” to entrust him with two such important ministries. The 63-year-old politician is chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and one of the central figures in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-right-wing nationalist coalition. After two years he was to take over the Ministry of Finance.

Open question: does a suspended sentence lead to a ban on politics?

Deri’s appointment as minister was controversial, however, as he had been convicted of tax evasion last year. The sentence was suspended after he resigned from the Knesset and said he no longer aspired to high political office. Since it was unclear from a legal point of view whether Deri’s suspended sentence would result in a seven-year political ban, Netanyahu’s coalition passed a law shortly before the new government was sworn in at the end of December, which cleared the way for Deri. A civil society initiative then submitted a petition to the Supreme Court against the appointment. Ten of the eleven judges now voted for the disqualification.

Aryeh Deri between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin

Aryeh Deri between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin

Image: AFP

While opposition politicians welcomed the decision, coalition representatives sharply criticized it. The chairman of Knesset, Amir Ohana of the right-wing Likud party, said the judges shouldn’t have interfered in a matter for parliament to settle. “Now the legislature will have its say,” Ohana said, apparently with a view to the judicial reform bill.

Justice Minister Jariv Levin called the judges’ decision “absurd”. It “tramps on the votes of nearly 400,000 Shas voters, but also on the will of the majority of Israeli citizens.” He will do whatever is necessary to right the “terrible injustice” against Deri, the Shas party and Israeli democracy, the Likud justice minister said. Jerusalem Affairs Minister Amihai Elijahu of the far-right Jewish Strength party called on the government to ignore the court’s “illegal decision.”

However, it is considered likely that the government will seek a different solution. Deris Schas party itself called the court decision political and arbitrary in a statement. It is a “grave violation of the right to vote and be elected, which is the lifeblood of democracy.” It was also said that the party would now weigh its next steps and would consult with the rabbis who guide the party.

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