Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed key ally Aryeh Deri from all ministerial posts on Sunday, complying with an Israeli High Court ruling that it was unreasonable to appoint the Shas party leader to positions in government.
The court had said Deri’s appointment “cannot stand” due to his criminal convictions and because he had said in court last year before being sentenced over a tax fraud conviction that he would retire from public life.
Netanyahu told Deri he made the move “with a heavy heart, with great sorrow,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office.
Deri’s dismissal came the day after more than 100,000 people protested in central Tel Aviv against Netanyahu’s government and its planned judicial reforms, according to police estimates in Israeli media. Thousands more people protested in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, police said.
This is the third week that opponents of Netanyahu’s government took to the streets in protest, but the largest turnout so far.
Netanyahu’s justice minister Yariv Levin announced a series of judicial reforms earlier this month that would allow parliament to overturn high court decisions and give politicians more power in appointing judges. On Wednesday, the high court ruled that Netanyahu must fire Deri, who was previously convicted on criminal charges including tax offenses. Deri served a suspended sentence and said he would leave public office.
Deri’s Shas party – which won 11 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset, in November and is a key component of Netanyahu’s coalition – immediately hit back, calling the court decision “arbitrary and unprecedented.”
The Sephardi religious party said the court “today threw away the voices and votes of 400,000 voters of the Shas movement.”
“Today the court actually ruled that the elections are meaningless. The court’s decision is political and tainted,” the party said.
The High Court had been asked to rule on whether it was legally reasonable to appoint Deri to posts in Netanyahu’s cabinet despite his tax fraud conviction. Judges ruled that his appointment “cannot stand.”
“This is, among other things, due to his backlog of criminal convictions,” and his failure to retire from public life as he said he would do when being sentenced in the tax fraud case.
Opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, attended Saturday’s protest in Tel Aviv.
“What you see here today is a demonstration in favor of the state. People who love the country came to defend its democracy, its courts, the idea of a common life and a common good,” Lapid tweeted. “There are Israel lovers here who came to demonstrate for a democratic Jewish state according to the values of the Declaration of Independence. We will not give up until we win.”
Amir Tal reported from Jerusalem and Pauline Lockwood wrote in Hong Kong. Hadas Gold contributed to this report.