Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired a key Cabinet ally on Sunday, heeding a Supreme Court ruling commanding him to do so and deepening a rift over the power of the courts.
Netanyahu announced he was firing Aryeh Deri, who serves as Interior and Health Minister, at a meeting of his Cabinet. Israel’s Supreme Court decided last week Deri could not serve as a Cabinet minister because of a conviction last year over tax offenses.
The court ruling came as Israel is mired in a dispute over the power of the judiciary. Netanyahu’s far-right government wants to weaken the Supreme Court, limit judicial oversight and grant more power to politicians. Critics say the move upends the country’s system of checks and balances and imperils Israel’s democratic fundamentals.
The plan has drawn fierce criticism from top legal officials, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, former lawmakers and tens of thousands of Israelis who have come out repeatedly to protest the overhaul.
According to his office, Netanyahu told Deri he was removing him from his post with “a heavy heart and great sorrow.”
“This unfortunate decision ignores the people’s will,” Netanyahu told Deri. “I intend to find any legal way for you to continue to contribute to the state of Israel.”
Deri said he would continue to lead his party and assist the government in advancing its agenda, including the legal overhaul.
Israeli media, citing police, said some 100,000 people were out in Tel Aviv protesting Netanyahu’s plans for judicial reform on Saturday night.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, vowed to continue with the judicial overhaul plans despite the protests. Opponents say the changes could help Netanyahu evade conviction in his corruption trial, or make the court case disappear altogether.
On Friday, Netanyahu’s coalition was put for a new test after a disagreement between Cabinet members over the dismantling of an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank.
Defense Minister Yoav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, ordered the removal of the outpost, upsetting a pro-settlement Cabinet member who had issued a directive to postpone the eviction pending further discussions.
Deri’s firing is also expected to shake Netanyahu’s governing coalition, a union buoyed by ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, including Deri’s Shas, which is the third largest party in the government. While some Shas lawmakers threatened to bolt the fledgling coalition in the aftermath of the court ruling, it is expected to survive Deri’s absence and to attempt to craft legislation that would pave the way for his swift return.
Netanyahu is now expected to appoint other Shas members to replace Deri, at least temporarily.