By Ron Kampeas
In a decision that could lead to the dissolution of Israel’s new government coalition, the country’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a minister who has been previously convicted in multiple fraud cases is not fit to serve in government.
The Court ruled 10-1 to disqualify Aryeh Deri, a longtime lawmaker and leader of a haredi Orthodox party, from his role as health and interior minister, citing his conviction last year for tax fraud. Deri had also previously served nearly two years in prison for taking bribes two decades ago.
If Deri pulls the 11 lawmakers from his Shas Party out of the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would lose his majority. The coalition currently controls 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.
Leaders of the coalition issued a statement vowing to use “legal means … to correct the injustice,” The Washington Post reported.
Netanyahu did not issue a statement on Wednesday. If he ignores the decision, he could plunge Israel into a constitutional crisis at a time when his new far-right government is already facing massive domestic protests and is under international scrutiny for proposals that would curtail the Supreme Court’s power. In recent years, the Supreme Court has banned Israeli construction on private Palestinian lands in the West Bank, forced the acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions and guaranteed some rights to gay couples — all of which the new government opposes.
Netanyahu has also been under investigation in multiple corruption cases for years.
The prime minister appeared at least initially to sympathize with Deri, visiting him at his home. “When my brother is in distress, I come to him,” The New York Times quoted Netanyahu as saying.
Deri wields considerable power as head of the interior and health ministries, each with a massive budget. The Interior Ministry also helps determine policy on civil and immigration issues, an area of interest for the haredi Orthodox community as it seeks to expand its influence.
A statement on Twitter suggested Deri would not go gently. “I intend to continue with great strength and boldness the social revolution our rabbis of blessed memory launched for Jewish identity and assistance for the weak,” he said. “We will do this with power, standing tall, with God’s help.”