Israel’s Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the appointment of a politician convicted of tax fraud as a senior minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition, in a move likely to accelerate a looming showdown between the government and the judiciary and one that could potentially destabilize the government.
A majority of the panel of 11 judges ruled against the appointment of the minister, Aryeh Deri, a close Netanyahu ally, on grounds of “extreme unreasonability” because of his conviction and suspended prison sentence, and said Mr. Netanyahu should remove him from his posts.
Mr. Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Shas party, was appointed to the powerful position of interior minister and was also named vice prime minister and health minister in the government that was sworn in barely three weeks ago. It is the most far-right and religiously conservative ruling coalition in Israel’s history.
The Supreme Court decision was keenly awaited, coming 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 the politicians.
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 that it deems unreasonable.
Critics, including the current chief justice, say the judicial changes, if enacted, would severely limit judicial independence and oversight and undermine Israel’s liberal democracy.
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. Under the amendment, the seven-year prohibition would only apply if actual time was served in jail.