Top Israeli legal official tells Netanyahu to fire key ally

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Interior and Health Minister Aryeh Deri at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s attorney general has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he must fire a key Cabinet ally, in a letter made public Thursday, following a Supreme Court ruling that disqualified him from serving as a government minister.

The letter, sent shortly after Wednesday’s court decision, compounds the pressure on Netanyahu to remove Aryeh Deri from the Cabinet and potentially destabilize his coalition government. The letter by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is also likely to exacerbate a dispute over the power of the judicial system and the government’s bid to overhaul it.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Deri, a longtime Netanyahu ally who leads the government’s third-largest party, cannot serve as a Cabinet minister because of a tax fraud conviction. The court said Netanyahu must fire him. Deri currently serves as Interior and Health Minister.

“You must act according to the ruling and remove him from his position in the government,” Baharav-Miara told Netanyahu in her letter.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Netanyahu would abide by the court ruling. But as the dust settled a bit Thursday, commentators said they expected Netanyahu to fire Deri and for the new government to somehow survive his absence.

But the court’s ruling only deepened the rift over Israel’s justice system.

Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox government — the most right-wing in Israeli history — has made overhauling the country’s judiciary a centerpiece of its agenda. It says a power imbalance has given judges and government legal advisers too much sway over lawmaking and governance.

The government wants to weaken the Supreme Court, making it difficult for it to overturn laws it deems unconstitutional. If it somehow does manage to overturn laws, parliament could overrule the court’s decision with 61 votes of the country’s 120-seat parliament. It has also proposed giving the government more control over how judges are chosen as well as limiting the independence of government legal advisers and allowing lawmakers to ignore their counsel.

Critics say the plans will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances, granting the government overwhelming power and stripping it of all judicial oversight. Fierce criticism against the plan has emerged from top legal officials, former lawmakers and government ministers as well as the country’s booming tech sector. Tens of thousands of Israelis protested the plan last week, and another protest is expected on Saturday.

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