Lubna Masarwa & Elis Gjevori
Middle East Eye / January 19, 2023
A showdown is brewing after the Israeli supreme court strikes down a political ally of Benjamin Netanyahu.
It’s been less than a month since Israel’s far-right coalition government was cobbled together, and the country could already be heading for a full-blown political and constitutional crisis.
In a dramatic 10-1 ruling on Wednesday, the Israeli supreme court ruled to disqualify Aryeh Deri, Israel’s interior and health minister, from holding political office over past criminal convictions.
Deri is one of the Israeli prime minister’s most experienced allies. As head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, he holds Benjamin Netanyahu’s future in his hands.
Ahead of the supreme court judgment yesterday, Deri’s political ally Yaakov Margi warned that if the Shas leader was disqualified, then “there will be no government”.
“I think we are in the deepest constitutional crisis that Israel has ever known,” said Meron Rapoport, an Israeli journalist and writer.
Deri was convicted of tax crimes in 2022 and submitted his resignation to the Israeli parliament.
He then struck a plea bargain with the courts, in which he said he would quit parliamentary and political life, only to return nine months later to take up the position of interior and health minister.
“I don’t see the government respecting the supreme court decision; but from another side, I don’t think Shas’ leader will resign,” Rapoport told Middle East Eye.
Pressure on Netanyahu to act is growing, though. Following the constitutional ruling on Deri, Israel’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, sent a letter to the prime minister telling him to fire Deri.
“Deri cannot continue to serve as a minister in the Government of Israel. Therefore, you must act in line with the legal ruling and remove [Deri] from his roles in the government,” said Baharav-Miara in a letter released by her office on Thursday.
“Without Deri, Netanyahu doesn’t have a government. But, on the other hand, if Netanyahu won’t fire him, he will violate the law,” added Rapoport.
Shas won 11 of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats in November’s elections, making it the fifth-largest party. With the Netanyahu-led coalition governing with a majority of three seats, the withdrawal of Shas would collapse his new government.
The scenarios awaiting Netanyahu over the coming days will likely define not just his political future, but Israel’s.
“I think the high court declared a war against the government,” said Rapoport.
Pretext to take on the judiciary
Netanyahu’s nascent coalition has already announced plans to overhaul how the country’s justice system works.
In an open letter last week, almost all the prosecutors and state attorneys who have served in Israel over the past half-century jointly warned that planned reforms to the country’s justice system would “destroy” judicial independence.
If implemented, the reforms would turn the supreme court into a “pseudo-political body that would be suspected of bending the law in favour of the government”, they said in an unprecedented defence of the judicial system.
Rapoport believes that while the ruling is a challenge to the Netanyahu coalition, it’s not a battle they will shy away from: “I don’t see them giving up easily, and I don’t see them calling another election anytime soon.”
Lawmakers and ministers from Netanyahu’s coalition, including United Torah Judaism’s Yisrael Eichler and Otzma Yehudit’s Amichai Eliyahu, are urging him to take on the supreme court.
“The High Court has no right to demand that it be obeyed – it’s a dictatorship like Putin,” Eichler told Army Radio on Thursday morning. On Wednesday, Eliyahu said: “I call on my partners in the government not to comply with the High Court’s ruling, as it is an illegal decision.”
The newspapers serving the ultra-Orthodox community have called the supreme court decision a blow “against democracy” and an “enormous injustice”.
Israel appears to be heading for a major showdown between the coalition government and the supreme court.
“Deri’s trial is being used as another vessel for them to prepare and promote their goals that already formally exist,” Yisrael Frey, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli journalist, told MEE.
Frey believes the coalition will look to exploit loopholes in the ruling.
“I imagine Deri will be appointed for the alternate prime minister role, allowing him to stay at the government decision-making table without any official title,” he said.
Frey is downbeat about the trajectory of Israeli politics and the havoc the current coalition is prepared to cause to save its leaders, including Netanyahu, from prison.
“These are not ordinary days; we are talking about a racist government planning to demolish the judiciary system,” he said. “However, my guess is that they will respect the current verdict and realize their destructive plans in the future.”
Netanyahu, who is backing the changes to the country’s justice system, would also personally benefit from the weakening of the courts.
The prime minister is on trial for corruption, and the reforms could enable him to evade conviction or see his case dismissed. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has railed publicly against the justice system, calling it biased against him.
Muhammed Zidan, a lawyer and head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Israel, believes that the supreme court ruling, while a blow to Netanyahu’s coalition, is part of a longer battle being waged by the country’s right-wing parties against the justice system.
Deri’s loss at the supreme court elicited little in the way of celebration among opponents. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition still has momentum.
“This is part of an escalating confrontation between the executive and legislative authorities on the one hand and the judicial system on the other,” Zidan told MEE.
The absence of a constitution in Israel means that all options are possible, he added.
With a slim yet solid majority in parliament, united by a strong ideological commitment to rein in the power of the supreme court, the far-right are currently regrouping – plotting their next move.
“There is no doubt that the right-wing settlement currents will take advantage of this decision to impose their agenda to limit and restrict the judiciary and the court – and increase its powers,” added Zidan.
Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem
Elis Gjevori is a journalist based in Istanbul