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Amid Fight Over Judiciary, Israeli High Court Orders Netanyahu Minister Removed

From the NYT

Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a politician convicted of tax fraud was not fit to serve as a senior minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition, a move likely to accelerate a looming showdown between the government and the judiciary over control of the country’s highest court and one that could destabilize the government.

Ten of the 11 judges on the panel ruled against the appointment of the minister, Aryeh Deri, the leader of an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party and a close Netanyahu ally, on grounds of “extreme unreasonability,” primarily because of his recent conviction and suspended prison sentence, and said the prime minister should remove him from his posts.

The decision came as Mr. Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges, and the judiciary are locked in a battle over the Supreme Court, with the prime minister and his coalition partners seeking to assert more control over legal matters, including the appointment of judges. Those efforts have prompted street protests in cities across Israel in recent weeks, with many Israelis fearing that the judicial changes could undermine the country’s democratic institutions.

Mr. Netanyahu now has to decide if he will respect the court ruling or defy it and head a government that opposition leaders said would be “illegal.”

Soon after the ruling was issued, Mr. Netanyahu went to meet Mr. Deri in his home in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. After the meeting, which lasted about 45 minutes, Mr. Netanyahu said, “When my brother is in distress, I come to him.”

The Supreme Court decision was keenly awaited, amid a stormy national debate over the government’s plans for fundamental judicial changes, including measures to severely curtail the power of the country’s top court and give more power to politicians.

As well as changing the way judges are chosen, the government’s proposals include reducing the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in Parliament and allowing Parliament to override such court decisions with a bare majority of 61. The government also wants to turn the legal advisers in government ministries into political appointees who would no longer answer to the attorney general.

An initial statement of support for Mr. Deri issued by Mr. Netanyahu’s staff in the name of the leaders of the coalition parties appeared ambiguous regarding next steps, but it suggested that the coalition wanted to find a way to keep the minister in office, or at least keep his party in the coalition.

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Praising his “extraordinary abilities and vast experience” and denouncing the “severe personal injustice” of the court decision, the statement said Mr. Deri would continue to play “a central and significant role,” without elaborating.

“We will act in any legal way that is available to us and without delay to correct the injustice and the severe damage caused to the democratic decision and the sovereignty of the people,” the statement added.

Mr. Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was appointed to the powerful positions of interior minister and health minister in the government that was sworn in barely three weeks ago. The outcome of Israel’s fifth election in under four years, it is the most far-right and religiously conservative ruling coalition in Israel’s history. Though Mr. Netanyahu promised a full, four-year term of stable government, its first weeks are proving tumultuous.

“If Prime Minister Netanyahu disobeys the court order and does not terminate Deri’s term in government — though I can hardly imagine such a scenario — then we are in a constitutional crisis of a sort we have never encountered before,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Jerusalem.

If Mr. Netanyahu complies with the court’s decision and terminates Deri’s term as minister, Mr. Plesner said, “then we are entering a new political chapter in the short life of this new government, with a political complication that could perhaps serve as a destabilizing factor.”

Shas is the second-largest party in the coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud and a key partner for its survival, making any decision on the party and Mr. Deri fraught for Mr. Netanyahu. The 11 seats that Shas won in the November elections make up a crucial part of the government’s majority of 64 in the 120-seat Parliament.

Another Shas minister, Yaakov Margi, told Israel’s public radio hours before the court ruling on Wednesday that “Netanyahu knows that if Deri is not in the government, there is no government.” He later softened the threat, saying that he personally would recommend that Shas withdraw from the government if Mr. Deri could not be a minister.

Even if Mr. Deri were to step down from his ministerial posts, he would remain the leader of Shas and, analysts said, continue to call the shots in government matters involving the party’s other ministers and lawmakers.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday against the government plans, accusing Mr. Netanyahu of undermining the country’s democratic traditions, giving unbridled power to the government and removing the protections the court provides for minorities.

Critics, including the current chief justice, say the judicial changes demanded by the government, if enacted, would severely limit judicial independence and oversight and undermine Israel’s liberal democracy.

Supporters of the changes have long accused the Supreme Court of being too activist and have presented the Deri case as one pitting unelected judges against the will of the voters.

One of the changes the government is working rapidly to push through would strip the top court of the ability to strike down legislation, appointments and other government decisions that it deems unreasonable. Analysts said that Wednesday’s ruling was likely to strengthen the resolve of those calling for such a change, which some of Mr. Deri’s supporters have suggested might clear the way for his reappointment to the cabinet.

But the judges noted that as part of his plea agreement last year, Mr. Deri, then a lawmaker in the opposition, had told the court that he would quit political life and had immediately resigned from Parliament. Analysts said the court’s inclusion of that argument for barring him from office could seriously complicate any legislative effort to reinstate him.

The Parliament rushed through a legal amendment after the November election to allow Mr. Deri to become a minister despite his recent conviction for tax fraud. As part of a plea agreement about a year ago, he received a suspended prison sentence.

The law previously barred any politician convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison from taking up a ministerial role for seven years after release. Under the amendment, the seven-year prohibition would apply only if actual jail time was served.

Mr. Deri’s Shas party vehemently attacked the Supreme Court and its decision, which cannot be appealed, saying in a statement, “Today the court actually ruled that the elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and tainted with extreme unreasonableness.”

“Wide sections of Israeli society today feel excluded by the court,” it said, describing the verdict as “arbitrary and unprecedented” and “a serious violation of the right to vote and be elected, which is the lifeblood of democracy.”

The Supreme Court judges wrote in their ruling that they had based their decision in part on the recidivism of Mr. Deri, who was first convicted in 1999 of taking bribes, fraud and breach of trust while he was a lawmaker and cabinet minister, and served two years of a three-year prison sentence. He was released in 2002 and returned to the political stage in 2011.

The judges wrote in their ruling that the political considerations that led Mr. Netanyahu to appoint Mr. Deri as a minister “carry significant weight,” given that Mr. Deri and his party won the confidence of their voters in the last election. But they also reserved some harsh criticism for the prime minister.

Mr. Deri’s appointment, they wrote, “stood in stark contradiction to the basic principles of the rule of law, as well as the integrity and the clean hands that are obligatory for elected officials, and which ought to guide the prime minister in the appointment of ministers.”
DeWayfarer · 61-69, M
Not that I agree or disagree with either one, yet this goes to show why courts shouldn't be apart of either elections or appointment of offices.

Their parliament (in our case congress) should have the choice.

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