Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed a top minister from office on Sunday following a Supreme Court ruling against Aryeh Deri’s appointment which has shaken the nascent cabinet.
“It is with a heavy heart, with great sorrow and with an extremely difficult feeling that I am forced to transfer you from your position as a minister in the government,” Netanyahu told Deri during a cabinet meeting, according to a statement from the premier’s office.
Leader of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas, Deri was appointed health and interior minister last month as part of a coalition deal following Israel’s November 1 elections.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Netanyahu ’must remove Deri from his position’ due to a tax evasion conviction last year.
The judges said Deri made it appear as if he had intended to resign from politics to get a lighter sentence.
The veteran politician was fined 180,000 shekels (US$50,000) and relinquished his parliamentary seat, but ran for office again in the November polls.
Lawmakers last month passed legislation allowing anyone convicted of offences but not given a custodial sentence to serve as a minister.
The judges ruled Deri’s appointment ‘could not stand’ since it was ‘extremely unreasonable’, according to a summary of the court’s decision.
Netanyahu said on Sunday the ruling, which permits Deri’s Shas party to remain in government, ‘ignores the will of the people’.
The premier added he will endeavour to find any legal way for Deri to still ‘contribute to the state of Israel’.
Deri had held several ministerial posts during his decades-long career, including after a seven-year ban following prison time for taking bribes.
He was sentenced in 2000 to three years, but the sentence was reduced by a third for good behaviour.
Netanyahu, already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, returned to office at the head of a coalition of ultra-Orthodox parties and an extreme-right alliance.
The prime minister himself is currently standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, charges he denies.
The government laid out in early January an ambitious agenda to overhaul the judiciary, which has sparked mass protest.
Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday against the controversial plans, including handing more powers to lawmakers in appointing judges and overriding Supreme Court decisions.
In Israel, which does not have a constitution, the Supreme Court currently has the authority to repeal laws it considers discriminatory or unreasonable.