Senior Israeli legal official tells Netanyahu to fire key ally

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

The letter, sent shortly after Wednesday’s court decision, increases pressure on Netanyahu to remove Aryeh Deri from the cabinet and potentially destabilize his coalition government. The letter from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara also risks exacerbating a dispute over the power of the judicial system and the government’s attempt to overhaul it.

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that Deri, a longtime Netanyahu ally who leads the government’s third party, cannot serve as a cabinet minister due to a tax fraud conviction. The court said Netanyahu must fire him. Deri is currently Minister of the Interior and Health.

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

It was not immediately clear whether Netanyahu would comply with the court ruling. But while the dust settled somewhat on Thursday, commentators said they expected Netanyahu to sack Deri and for the new government to somehow survive his absence.

But the court’s ruling only deepened the rift in the Israeli justice system.

Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox government – the most right-wing in Israel’s history – has made overhauling the country’s judiciary central to its agenda. He says an imbalance of power has given judges and government counsel too much leverage over lawmaking and governance.

The government wants to weaken the Supreme Court, making it difficult for it to overturn laws it deems unconstitutional. If he somehow manages to overturn the laws, parliament could overturn the court’s decision by 61 votes out of the country’s 120 parliament seats. He also proposed giving the government more control over the choice of judges, as well as limiting the independence of government legal advisers and allowing lawmakers to override their advice.

Critics say the plans will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances, giving the government overwhelming power and stripping it of any judicial oversight. Strong criticism of the plan has come from senior legal officials, former lawmakers and government ministers, as well as from the country’s burgeoning technology sector. Tens of thousands of Israelis protested the plan last week and another protest is expected on Saturday.

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