One Politician’s 30 Years of Legal Troubles Can Explain the Controversy over the Israeli Judiciary

January 25, 2023 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

Last week, Israel’s supreme court ruled that Aryeh Deri—the head of the Shas party and the recently inaugurated minister of health, minister of the interior, and vice-prime minister—could not maintain his cabinet posts. The court argued that Deri had promised to withdraw from political life as a condition of a 2022 plea bargain in which he confessed to tax fraud, and could not renege on his commitment. Despite Deri’s insistence that he had made no such promise, Benjamin Netanyahu led his cabinet in voting for Deri’s dismissal, which went into effect yesterday.

Netanyahu’s decision to abide by the supreme court’s ruling suggests that he is not so quick to dismiss the judicial branch as some of his opponents fear; yet it also appears to some of his supporters as further evidence that the government must curb the power of the high court. But to understand this controversy fully, writes Haviv Rettig Gur, one must go back to 1993, when Deri was serving in the cabinet of Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin, and was about to be indicted on charges of corruption:

The question the high court had to answer in 1993 was not whether it was appropriate for an indicted minister to serve in government. No one, not even Deri himself, argued that it was. The question was the timing—whether the prime minister could wait to fire Deri until a formal indictment was filed with the court. The letter of the law was on Rabin’s side, as Attorney General Harish and the opinion of Justice Aharon Barak both made clear.

Also, the traditional reasons for judicial intervention did not exist: no rights were colliding or at stake; no clear law was being trampled; Rabin was not suspected of ulterior motives or failure to consider all aspects of his decision. He had weighed his decision carefully, the judges wrote, balancing the needs of the government, of public welfare, and of the public’s trust in state institutions.

But, they ruled, he’d then made the wrong call, prioritizing his government’s survival and his peace initiative over the need to ensure public trust in state bodies. [Instead, according to the court, Rabin should have fired] Deri sooner than the written law required. The “extreme unreasonableness” finding was based on the judges’ expectation that Rabin’s decision “will have extreme ramifications for the character of government in Israel, its good faith and decency.”

The decision went further. One of the key questions raised by the Deri case was what happened when a prime minister and an attorney general disagreed. In the case of Deri’s . . . firing, Rabin and his attorney general were at odds, which made it difficult for the attorney general, whose Hebrew title is “legal adviser to the government,” to represent Rabin’s view before the court. More to the point, Harish refused to do so.

What was to be done? . . . Justice Barak took up the question in his opinion and explained that it was the wrong question. The real question, he wrote, was whether the government had a right to act contrary to the attorney general’s opinion in the first place. And the answer, he concluded, was no.

This was one of several decisions that convinced many Israelis that the court had far overreached the proper bounds of its authority.

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