Israel in constitutional crisis as court blocks ministerial appointment

Arieh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, disqualified from serving in Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government

Israel was plunged into a constitutional crisis on Wednesday after the high court disqualified Arieh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, from serving as interior and health minster in prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government.

Mr Netanyahu travelled to Mr Deri’s Jerusalem home after the court ruling but there was no announcement following the meeting. However, it is expected that the government will, reluctantly, accept the ruling and Mr Deri will be replaced in the coming days.

By a margin of 10 to one, the high court justices ruled that Mr Netanyahu should remove Mr Deri from the government due to the appointment’s “extreme unreasonableness” and the plea bargain in which Mr Deri promised that he would not return to public life.

Mr Deri was convicted last year on charges of tax evasion. He escaped punishment after signing a plea deal that saw him resign as a member of the Knesset parliament. Although the move seemed to signal the end of Mr Deri’s political career, he nonetheless led his ultra-Orthodox party, supported predominantly by Jews of Sephardic origin, in the November election, winning 11 Knesset seats and becoming Mr Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner.


Mr Deri is still a Knesset member and the interior and health portfolios will remain in Shas hands.

Wednesday’s dramatic ruling came during a period of tension as Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious coalition pushes ahead with controversial legislation to reduce the power of the judiciary, including ending the court’s right to overturn a Knesset decision on the grounds of “reasonability”.

Some 80,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv over the weekend claiming the reform plan endangers Israeli democracy and will effectively end the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Supreme court president Esther Hayut said: “This is a person who has been convicted three times of offences throughout his life, and he violated his duty to serve the public lawfully.”

“Prime minister Netanyahu was not entitled to ignore the accumulation of serious corruption offences,” Ms Hayut continued. “Having Deri in charge of two of the most important ministries in the government damages the image and reputation of the country’s legal system and contradicts principles of ethical conduct and legality.”

In the minority opinion, sole dissenter justice Yosef Elron, who is both conservative and Sephardic, wrote that he believed that the appointment should stand but Mr Deri must first appeal to the chair of the central election committee to have him determine the matter.

Shas said the court decision ignored the will of 400,000 Shas voters.

“Today, the court effectively ruled that elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and tainted with extreme un-reasonability,” a Shas statement said.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and the other coalition parties called Mr Deri a “central and significant” part of the government and pledged to keep him in office.

The Movement for Quality Government, one of the petitioners against Mr Deri, welcomed the ruling saying “the government is not a rehabilitation facility for criminals.”

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem