If Netanyahu were to fire Deri, he would risk the collapse of his coalition, as Shas controls 11 of the 64 seats that comprise his Knesset majority.
Yaakov Margi, welfare and social affairs minister from Deri’s Shas party, said that without Deri “there will be no government,” in an interview with Kan Radio on Tuesday.
The verdict is one of the first tests in an intensifying constitutional showdown between the government, which is rushing ahead with an overhaul of the judiciary system, and the Supreme Court, viewed as one of the last bastions of Israeli democracy.
On Saturday night, more than 80,000 Israelis, including prominent members of the center-left opposition, protested in Tel Aviv, accusing Netanyahu of trying to demolish the country’s institutions to save himself and his political allies from criminal prosecution. Netanyahu has been indicted in three separate corruption cases; Deri has been convicted of, and served jail time for, breach of trust and financially related crimes.
Netanyahu’s Likud party refused to grant interviews Wednesday, but the heads of the coalition said in a statement that the decision was “a huge injustice to over two million citizens, the majority of the people, who voted in favor of a government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu in which Aryeh Deri will play a central and significant role.”
They vowed to use “legal means … to correct the injustice.”
“Today the Supreme Court, which claims to represent minorities, threw away the ballots of 400,000 Shas voters, who represent the underprivileged in Israel and went to the polls just two months ago,” a Shas spokesman said in a statement following the decision.
Last year, Deri, then an MP, was convicted of tax fraud. He claimed that he had been targeted due to “racism,” referring to his Moroccan heritage, but confessed to the charges, signed a plea deal, and received a suspended jail sentence after vowing that he would not serve in government. Deri resigned from the Knesset before the court could decide if his actions amounted to “moral turpitude,” a charge that would have prevented him from serving as a minister for seven years.
Last month, the Knesset passed a basic law — comparable to a constitutional amendment — known as the “Deri Law,” allowing him to take office despite his recent convictions.
“This is an unprecedented situation and the political heat is high, but from a legal standpoint, it was a simple case” said Nadiv Mordechay, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Mordechay said that the nearly unanimous Supreme Court decision was driven by “the excessive use of legislative forces that made this happen: the government’s changing of a basic law to surpass the courts which made it clear that Deri’s appointment was, as they ultimately ruled, ‘extremely unreasonable.’”
In response to the ruling, Deri could step down and the government could use its judicial overhaul to reinstall him in his post, legal experts say. Netanyahu could also refuse to remove Deri from his position, setting up a protracted struggle with the courts.
“If Aryeh Deri is not fired, Israel will fall into an unprecedented constitutional crisis and will no longer be a democracy and will not be a state of law,” tweeted opposition leader Yair Lapid.
On Monday, Deri told members of his Shas party that he did not plan to bow out as minister if he was disqualified by the Supreme Court, according to Israel’s Channel 13.
The disqualification would amount to the Supreme Court “shooting itself in the head,” Shas lawmaker Avraham Bezalel said earlier this week, later clarifying that he did not intend for his remarks to be interpreted as a threat.