Israel's Netanyahu to fire convicted minister as protests rumble on

Rallies centred on the government's planned judicial reforms and other policies

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will dismiss coalition ally Aryeh Deri from the cabinet on Sunday following a Supreme Court order for his removal over his criminal record, said a confidant of the minister.

However, Mr Deri ― who was appointed interior and health minister on December 29 ― will keep his ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas in Israel's coalition government, confidant Barak Seri, a former spokesman for the minister, told Army Radio.

The Supreme Court ruling last week against Mr Deri's appointment, given his 2022 plea-bargain conviction for tax fraud, stoked a stormy debate in Israel ― accompanied by nationwide protests ― over government-proposed judicial reform plans.

Tens of thousands of Israelis joined demonstrations on Saturday night against the reforms by Mr Netanyahu's new government.

The plans, which the government says are needed to curb overreach by activist judges, have drawn fierce opposition from groups including lawyers, and raised concerns among business leaders, widening already-deep political divisions in Israeli society.

“This is a protest to defend the country,” said opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid, who joined the protest.

“People came here today to protect their democracy.”

“They want to turn us into a dictatorship; they want to destroy democracy,” the head of the Israeli Bar Association, Avi Chimi said. “They want to destroy judicial authority. There is no democratic country without a judicial authority.”

Mr Netanyahu has dismissed the protests, now in their third week, as a refusal by leftist opponents to accept the results of last November's election, which produced one of the most right-wing governments in Israel's history.

The protesters say the future of Israeli democracy is at stake if the government succeeds in pushing through the plans, which would tighten political control over judicial appointments and limit the Supreme Court's powers to overturn government decisions or Knesset laws.

As well as threatening the independence of judges and weakening oversight of the government and parliament, they say the plans will undermine the rights of minorities and open the door to more corruption.

Thousands protest against Israeli government plan to reform judiciary

People demonstrate against the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 7, 2023.  REUTERS / Amir Cohen

“We are fighting for democracy,” said Amnon Miller, 64, among crowds of protesters, many bearing white and blue Israeli flags. “We fought in this country in the army for 30 years for our freedom and we won't let this government take our freedom.”

Protesters filled central streets in the seaside metropolis, raising Israeli flags and banners that read “Our Children will not Live in a Dictatorship” and “Israel, We Have A Problem.”

“All generations are concerned. This is not a joke,” said Lior Student, a protester. “This is a complete redefinition of democracy.”

Other protests took place in the cities of Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.

Mr Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, has defended the judicial reform plans that are currently being examined by a parliamentary committee, saying they will restore a proper balance between the three branches of government.

Likud politicians have long accused the Supreme Court of being dominated by leftist judges who they say encroach on areas outside their authority for political reasons. The court's defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution.

A survey released by the Israel Democracy Institute last week showed trust in the Supreme Court was markedly higher among left-wing Israelis than among those on the right, but that there was no overall support for weakening the court's powers.

The new government, which took office this month, is an alliance between Mr Netanyahu's Likud party and a clutch of smaller religious and hard-right nationalist parties that say they have a mandate for sweeping change.

But as well as the issue over the appointment of Mr Deri, the less than month-old religious-nationalist alliance creaked elsewhere as a far-right partner planned to boycott the weekly cabinet session in a dispute over Jewish settlement policies in the occupied West Bank.

The ministers from the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party said they would not attend the cabinet session in protest at Israel's demolition on Friday of a small settler outpost that had been erected without government permission.

Updated: January 22, 2023, 11:17 AM