israels judicial standoff deepens as netanyahu delays firing minister

The Israeli prime minister has yet to uphold a decision by the Supreme Court that a key government minister convicted of tax fraud should be dismissed.

The new right-wing Israeli government and the country’s judiciary remained locked in a standoff Thursday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed upholding a Supreme Court ruling that called for the dismissal of a key government minister.

Mr. Netanyahu had taken no action on removing his interior minister, Aryeh Deri, by the early afternoon, a day after the country’s highest court ruled that the minister should be fired, principally because he had recently been convicted of tax fraud and received a suspended prison sentence.

If Mr. Deri does not resign in the coming days or Mr. Netanyahu does not fire him, the legal dispute will compound a wider clash between the government and the judiciary that analysts consider one of the most profound in Israeli history.

Mr. Netanyahu faces an almost existential dilemma: Legal experts say there is no direct precedent for an Israeli leader failing to heed the ruling of the Supreme Court and would constitute a broadside against the rule of law, but removing a top official from his coalition could bring the government crashing down.

Coalition leaders were locked in tense private discussions about how to respond, amid speculation in the Israeli news media that Mr. Netanyahu would ultimately acquiesce to the court’s decision, to avoid exacerbating an already febrile mood in the country. The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, advised Mr. Netanyahu that he had no other legal option, according to a letter published by Kan, Israel’s national broadcaster.

The standoff with the judiciary comes just days after Mr. Netanyahu’s government set out plans to significantly reduce the Supreme Court’s power over politicians and increase political influence over the selection of the court’s judges.

The proposed overhaul prompted large protests across Israel in recent days, amid furious disagreement within Israeli society about whether politicians or the judiciary should hold primacy in a liberal democracy.

Opposition leaders and several former prime ministers have warned that the judicial overhaul would damage the democratic process, while the government and its supporters argue it would strengthen it — by giving greater power to parties representing a majority of voters.

These tensions are set against the backdrop of Mr. Netanyahu’s own corruption trial, which his allies portray as a case of overreach by an unelected judiciary against an elected political leader, but which his critics cite as an example of the need for strong judicial independence from the political executive.

Nir Elias/Reuters

Mr. Deri’s predicament also threatens to resurface longstanding grievances from Jewish Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin, or Mizrahim, who form Mr. Deri’s political base. After Israel’s founding, Mizrahi Israelis suffered discrimination from Israelis of European descent, or Ashkenazim, a group that dominated Israeli society for decades and still form a majority on the Supreme Court.

By Thursday afternoon, it was not yet clear whether Mr. Netanyahu would ignore the court’s decision, setting off a constitutional crisis, or find a way of upholding it without collapsing his government.

Following the court’s announcement on Thursday, the leaders of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition issued an ambiguous statement, promising to “correct the injustice” of the ruling but leaving open the possibility that Mr. Deri might still resign.

The disagreement stems from Mr. Deri’s decision to re-enter frontline politics in a general election last November. Mr. Deri is a political veteran, first serving in cabinet in the 1980s. But he had promised a court in 2021 that he would retire from political life in exchange for sparing him from jail time for tax fraud.

In the election, Mr. Deri’s party, Shas, a group popular with working-class ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews, won 11 seats. Shas became the second-largest party in Mr. Netanyahu’s victorious right-wing coalition, giving it the balance of power in Parliament.

To secure Mr. Deri’s support, Mr. Netanyahu appointed him to lead two powerful ministries — health and interior. In doing so, he set up the clash with the Supreme Court, which was forced to rule on Mr. Deri’s suitability for office.

Though members of Shas threatened earlier this week to bring down the coalition if Mr. Deri was forced to leave office, they scaled back that rhetoric after the court announcement.

Asked for comment on the party’s intentions, a spokesman for Shas sent a statement underscoring its support for Mr. Deri and his continued leadership, but avoiding any mention of his ministerial future.

Analysts speculated that he might resign in favor of allies in Shas. Some also suggested that the government’s lawmakers might vote for its own dissolution, and then immediately form a new administration in which Mr. Deri would be made an “alternate” prime minister — an appointment that experts say would be harder for judges to block.

The lack of clarity reflects how the new government has struggled to end the political stability that has roiled Israel over the past four years, leading to five elections since 2019.

The turbulence began when Mr. Netanyahu declined to leave office despite being investigated and later tried for corruption. His decision split the Israeli public almost evenly, between supporters who felt he was the victim of a judicial stitch-up, and critics who felt he should leave office until at least the trial ended.

That divide led to four inconclusive elections between 2019 and 2021, in which neither Mr. Netanyahu nor his opponents could win a large enough majority to stay in power for long.

Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents briefly won power in 2021, but were defeated again in November as Mr. Netanyahu returned to office at the helm of the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history.

Despite the government’s ideological cohesion, its initial weeks in office have been rocky, amid opposition fury at the plans for judicial change, tensions over Mr. Deri, and concerns within the security services about Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to give key security roles to far-right politicians.

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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