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 February 2022 conviction for tax fraud.
Netanyahu should remove Deri from his post, the court ruling said. Such a move would risk plunging 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 component of Netanyahu’s coalition – immediately hit back, calling the court decision “arbitrary and unprecedented.”
The Sephardi religious party said the court “today threw away the voices and votes of 400,000 voters of the Shas movement.”
“Today the court actually ruled that the elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and tainted,” the party said.
The High Court had been asked to rule on whether it was legally reasonable to appoint Deri to posts in Netanyahu’s cabinet despite his tax fraud conviction
Judges ruled that his appointment “cannot stand.”
“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 do when being sentenced in the tax fraud case.
The underlying legal issue is whether Deri’s tax fraud conviction constitutes a crime of moral turpitude. Until November’s elections, that would have disqualified him from serving in government.
But Netanyahu and his allies made a change to the law in the wake of their election victory, clearing the way for Deri to become a 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 giving the head of the election commission a chance to rule on whether the conviction disqualified him from serving as 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 signaling this week that the Shas party leader would not resign his ministerial post even if the court ruling went against him.
In a statement made to his fellow party members gathered at his house, Deri on Wednesday said he would “continue the revolution even more strongly with and more force,” without going into detail.
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His refusal to resign – or Netanyahu’s refusal to sack him – potentially sets up a constitutional crisis pitting the government against the High 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 dismissing Deri would plunge the government into crisis.
On Wednesday evening local time Netanyahu was seen visiting Deri’s home, spending around 45 minutes inside before leaving again. Netanyahu did not make any comment to journalists who were 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 crying injustice done to Rabbi Aryeh Deri, to the Shas movement and to Israeli democracy will be fully corrected,” Levin said.
Levin has already announced plans to change Israel’s justice system by giving the Knesset the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions and to review nominations to the court.
The President of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut – who was among the 10 judges ruling Wednesday that Netanyahu should dismiss Deri – last week called the proposed changes “an unbridled attack on the legal system.”
Israel has been racked by political instability in recent years, with Netanyahu winning a slim victory in the fifth Israeli 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 period of protracted political chaos.
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Itamar Ben Gvir, an extremist who has been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism, became national security minister. Bezalel Smotrich, who has supported abolishing the Palestinian Authority and annexing the West Bank, became finance minister.
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Netanyahu’s latest term has got off to a tough start, with tens of thousands of people protesting in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on January 14 against his government’s proposed changes to the Israeli 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 theocratic Iran.
Protesters told CNN they came out of fear for Israel’s future and to send a message to Netanyahu that the public wouldn’t stand for what they see as the dismantling of Israeli democracy.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Hadas Gold in Jerusalem.