Netanyahu fires key coalition ally Aryeh Deri after disqualification by high court

Netanyahu fires key coalition ally Aryeh Deri after disqualification by high court

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly fired a key cabinet ally on Sunday, abiding by a Supreme Court ruling that the man was unfit for office in part because of a “backlog of criminal convictions” against him.

The dismissal is seen as a potential threat to the stability of the Netanyahu administration because Aryeh Deri, the fired health and interior minister, is head of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which is part of the far-right coalition that enabled Netanyahu to form a government. Deri was convicted of tax fraud last year. While claiming that he had been targeted because of his Moroccan heritage, he signed a plea deal and received a suspended sentence after vowing that he would not seek to serve in government.

Netanyahu is expected to temporarily replace Deri with another member of Shas, ensuring that the coalition holds in the immediate term as members work to pass legislation to allow for his return. Yaakov Margi, welfare and social affairs minister from Shas, had previously threatened that “there will be no government” if Deri were to be removed.

Netanyahu had appointed Deri interior and health minister as part of a complex coalition deal reached in December. The agreement enabled Netanyahu to regain his place as prime minister and end four years of electoral deadlock in exchange for giving unprecedented sweeping powers to extreme-right and ultrareligious allies.

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Netanyahu announced Deri’s removal during a weekly cabinet meeting and said it was done with “a heavy heart and great sorrow.”

“This unfortunate decision ignores the people’s will,” Netanyahu told Deri. “I intend to find any legal way for you to continue to contribute to the state of Israel.”

Until the Sunday announcement it remained unclear whether Netanyahu would comply with the Supreme Court ruling, which inside Israel had become a key test of how far the country’s embattled leader would go, at least in the immediate term, in his escalating constitutional showdown.

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Netanyahu has pledged to rein in oversight of lawmakers by the judiciary, which is seen as one of the country’s last democratic bulwarks. The prime minister is mired in his own corruption trial that’s dragged on for years and threatens his status as Israel’s longest-serving leader. Netanyahu has denied all charges against him and claimed to be the victim of a witch hunt by the country’s courts and media.

The prime minister can still hold office while indicted, but Netanyahu has asked lawmakers to grant him immunity and to impose other curbs on judicial checks of the government.

Deri, responding to Netanyahu’s statement Sunday, said he had “an ironclad commitment to the 400,000 people who voted for me and Shas. No judicial decision will prevent me from serving and representing them.”

The prime minister’s polarizing legal agenda has compounded deep divides over how Jewish Israelis see the country’s future. On Saturday, for the third week in a row, tens of thousands of Israelis protested Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

For years Netanyahu has struggled to secure a strong enough majority in parliament to push through his agenda — an electoral impasse that appeared to break this fall, but which Deri’s removal threatened to upend.

At stake is also the viability of other plans by extremist members of the governing coalition. In recent years Netanyahu has allied with once fringe ultraconservative Jewish supremacists, who have agreed to help shield him from prosecution in exchange for free rein to implement their agenda, including a tightening of the military occupation in the Palestinian territories and restrictions on the rights of LGBTQ Israelis and other minorities.

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One such lawmaker, Itamar Ben Gvir, was himself convicted of racist incitement and support for a terrorism group in 2007. Ben Gvir and his allies want to completely annex the Israeli-occupied West Bank without granting Palestinian residents equal rights, a move that would guarantee the demise of the two-state solution for peace in the region.

Though public criticism of the government in Israel is common, public opposition to the occupation is far less common and is in some cases criminalized. Tensions over the disputed territory have been high since last spring when a spate of Palestinian attacks on Israelis were met with near-nightly Israeli military raids across the occupied West Bank. Israeli security forces have killed at least 18 Palestinians in the West Bank this year, after 2022 was the deadliest in nearly two decades, according to the United Nations.

While another key goal of Netanyahu’s government is expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, on Friday Israeli authorities dismantled a small settler outpost near the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, sparking a standoff with another key coalition ally, head of the fundamentalist Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich. Members of the far-right party boycotted Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Deri’s Shas party controls 11 of the 64 seats that make up Netanyahu’s majority. The ultra-orthodox lawmaker, one of Israel’s key political kingmakers, previously served time in jail for breach of trust and financially related crimes. In December, Israel’s parliament passed a law allowing Deri to run for parliament despite his past convictions.

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