Netanyahu removes key cabinet ally on orders of Israeli high court

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed a key cabinet ally on Sunday, after the country’s top court ruled last week that he could not serve as a minister in light of his criminal convictions.

The removal of Aryeh Deri, head of the ultraorthodox Shas party, comes amid a brewing battle over Israel’s legal order, with Netanyahu’s hardline new government readying legislation to curb the powers of the judiciary that critics say will deal a fatal blow to the country’s checks and balances.

On Saturday evening, more than 120,000 people took to the streets in Tel Aviv, Israel’s liberal beachside metropolis, to protest against the measures in one of the biggest demonstrations in the country for more than a decade. Smaller protests took place in Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva.

Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday he was complying with the court order to remove Deri with a “heavy heart [and] great sorrow” but insisted that he would look for “any legal way” for Deri to “continue to contribute to the State of Israel”.

“This unfortunate decision ignores the will of the people,” he said of the court order.

In a separate challenge for the new government, Sunday’s cabinet meeting was boycotted by one of the coalition’s far-right parties in protest at an order from the defence minister to abandon a settler outpost that had been set up in the occupied West Bank.

Israel’s High Court said on Wednesday that Deri’s appointment as interior and health minister in Netanyahu’s new government, widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history, could not stand in light of his past criminal convictions.

Deri was convicted last year of tax fraud and received a suspended sentence after a plea deal. He served a jail term in the early 2000s following a conviction for taking bribes during a previous stint as interior minister.

Despite his removal from the ministerial posts, Deri said on Sunday that he planned to continue as head of Shas — the second biggest party in Netanyahu’s coalition of rightwing and ultrareligious groups — and that he would also remain an MP.

“I have an ironclad obligation to 400,000 people who voted for me and for Shas,” Deri said in a statement. “No judicial decision will prevent me from serving and representing them.”

Deri also said that he would continue to assist the government in its plans to overhaul the judiciary, which it has made one of its key objectives.

Proponents argue that the plans, which would give the government and its allies control over the appointment of judges and let a simple majority in parliament override decisions by the top court to strike down laws, are necessary to roll back three decades of what they describe as excessive judicial activism.

But critics see the proposals as a politically motivated attempt to weaken the already limited checks and balances on Israeli governments and fatally undermine judicial independence. The attorney-general warned last month that the overhaul risked reducing Israel to a “democracy in name only”.

The mass demonstrations on Saturday marked the third straight weekend in which Israelis had taken to the streets to oppose the overhaul. Last weekend, around 80,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv to protest against the plans.

However, the government has shown little sign of being dissuaded. After last week’s demonstrations, Netanyahu insisted that his coalition’s election victory late last year had given it a mandate to carry out the plans.

“Several months ago there was a huge demonstration, the mother of all demonstrations. Millions of people went into the streets in order to vote in the elections,” he said at a cabinet meeting. “One of the main topics that they voted on was reforming the judicial system.”

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