Israel’s democracy on the brink amid supreme court showdown with Netanyahu

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Israel’s highest court this week ordered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire a key ally, a dramatic move amid an unprecedented confrontation between his government and the judiciary.

The High Court ruled 10-1 on Wednesday that it was unreasonable for Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas, to serve as a minister. He was appointed interior and health minister just three weeks ahead of the ruling.

But so far, Netanyahu has not taken any action, as political tensions mount. Israel media reported Friday Deri and Netanyahu are in the midst of negotiations over the situation.

Deri has several convictions on his record, most recently on tax charges. Last year he struck a plea bargain with the courts, which saw him serve a suspended sentence after he resigned from parliament and pledged not to return to public office.

Under Israeli law, people convicted of crimes cannot serve as ministers. But Netanyahu’s government passed an amendment to that law earlier this month that essentially created a loophole for Deri.

In Wednesday’s ruling, the justices narrowly focused on Netanyahu’s appointment of Deri despite his assertion that he would leave political life as part of the deal for the suspended sentence.

But less than a year after that plea bargain was struck, Netanyahu has now been told he needs to fire Deri – whose 11 seats in parliament he needs to stay in power.

“This is a dramatic decision. The decision is aimed at the prime minister, not Deri,” said Yaniv Roznai, an associate professor and co-director at the Rubinstein Center for Constitutional Challenges, Reichman University in Israel.

Since the ruling, Netanyahu has not reacted much beyond going to see Deri and issuing general words of support. CNN has reached out to his office for further comment.

“When my brother is in distress – I come to him,” Netanyahu said as he went to visit Deri after the ruling on Wednesday.

In a joint statement the same day, the heads of the coalition parties led by Netanyahu’s party Likud said: “We will act in any legal way that is available to us and without delay, to correct the injustice and the serious damage caused to the democratic decision and the sovereignty of the people.”

Deri has seemingly vowed to find a way around the ruling, proclaiming: “They will close the door for us, we will enter through the window. They will close the window for us, we will break through the ceiling.”

But most political and legal experts believe it’s extremely unlikely that Netanyahu or Deri would defy the court’s ruling, or that Deri will pull his Shas party out of Netanyahu’s coalition, a move that would cause the government to fall.

Yonatan Green, executive director of the Israel Law and Liberty Forum, told reporters in a briefing that while he thinks Netanyahu is expected to follow the court order in this case, it sets the stage for future defiance.

“Each successive case of this kind probably brings us a little bit closer to that particular brink,” Green said.

And so experts say one of the most likely paths forward is for Netanyahu to fire Deri, and for the government to bulldoze through judicial reforms that it has already announced.

The Deri ruling comes amid an ongoing battle that has been raging over the judiciary. Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, announced in early January a series of judicial reforms that would give parliament (and by extension the parties in power) the ability to overturn supreme court rulings, appoint judges, and remove from ministries legal advisers whose legal advice is binding

If parliament gets such powers, it could create a path for Deri to return. But critics say it could also help Netanyahu end his ongoing corruption trial. Netanyahu has repeatedly denied in multiple interviews that the changes would be for his own benefit.

Backers of the reforms have long accused the high court of overreach and elitism. They say the changes would restore balance between the branches of government.

But opponents including former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and the President of the Israeli supreme court Esther Hayut say it will erode Israel’s independent judiciary, weaken the checks and balances between the branches and spell the beginning of the end of Israel’s democracy.

“If Aryeh Deri is not fired, the Israeli government is breaking the law. A government that does not obey the law is an illegal government,” Lapid tweeted.

It was these proposed judicial reforms that drove some 80,000 people onto the streets of Tel Aviv in pouring rain on Saturday to protest the changes.

Organizers hope the protest spurs a movement and mounting public pressure on Netanyahu to back off or limit the scope of the proposed reforms.

UAE and India discussing settling non-oil trade in rupees

The United Arab Emirates is in early discussions with India to trade non-oil commodities in Indian rupees, Reuters cited Emirati Minister for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi as saying on Thursday.

  • Background: The UAE last year signed a wide-ranging free trade agreement with India, which, along with China, is among the biggest trade partners for Gulf Arab oil and gas producers, most of whose currencies are pegged to the US dollar. The large majority of Gulf trade is conducted in US dollars but countries such as India and China are increasingly seeking to pay in local currencies for reasons including lowering transaction costs.
  • Why it matters: Other countries, including China, have also raised the issue of settling non-oil trade payments in local currencies, the minister said, but discussions weren’t at an advanced stage. China’s president in December visited Saudi Arabia where he participated in a Gulf Arab summit and called for oil trade in yuan as Beijing seeks to establish its currency internationally. The Saudi finance minister said this week that the kingdom would be open to trade in other currencies aside from the US dollar.

Turkey’s opposition to announce presidential candidate to challenge Erdogan

Turkey’s opposition alliance is set to announce in February their presidential candidate to challenge President Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule in elections set for May, Reuters cited an opposition party official as saying on Friday. The six-party alliance is seeking to forge a united platform but has yet to agree on a candidate to challenge Erdogan for the presidency.

  • Background: Turkey’s two main opposition parties, the secularist CHP and center-right nationalist IYI Party, have allied themselves with four smaller parties under a platform that would seek to dismantle Erdogan’s executive presidency in favor of the previous parliamentary system.
  • Why it matters: Turkey is heading towards one of the most consequential votes in the century-long history of the modern republic and Erdogan signaled on Wednesday that the presidential and parliament elections would be on May 14, a month ahead of schedule.

Kuwaiti leader frees jailed critics in effort to build political cohesion

Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah has pardoned dozens of jailed critics under a new amnesty in an effort to end political feuding that has hampered fiscal reforms as tensions surface between the new government and parliament, Reuters reported. The amnesty pardoned 34 Kuwaitis, most of them convicted for voicing public criticism.

  • Background: Kuwait has the region’s liveliest parliament and tolerates criticism to a degree that is rare among Gulf Arab states, but the emir has the final say in state affairs and criticizing him is a jailable offense. The cabinet on Tuesday voiced hope that the latest amnesty, which followed the pardoning of dozens of political dissidents in 2021 in a nod to opposition demands, would “create an atmosphere of fruitful cooperation”.
  • Why it matters: Opposition members made big gains in elections held in September. Tensions recently resurfaced as lawmakers pressed the government for a debt relief bill under which the state would buy citizens’ personal loans – a measure that past governments have taken but which comes as the oil producer seeks to push through fiscal reforms to bolster state finances.

Conservative Gulf Arab states rarely send contestants to international beauty pageants, many of which include segments where women are presented in revealing swimsuits.

But one contestant from the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain avoided that taboo by participating in this year’s Miss Universe in New Orleans in a pink burkini swimsuit that covered her from the neck down, including her arms.

As 24-year-old Evlin Khalifa walked down the catwalk, she unfurled a cape with a flag of Bahrain and the word “equality” in Arabic. A message in English read: “Arab women should be represented… A Muslim woman can also become a Miss Universe.”

The pianist and taekwondo black-belt told the UAE’s The National newspaper that she decided to participate in order to “break stereotypes.”

“Arab women are kind, passionate and brave and they are ready to embrace the challenges of life,” she said. “They can become beauty queens in modesty and can shine in modern pageantry.”

The only other Arab country to send a participant was Lebanon. Miss USA won the pageant.

Iraqi players celebrate after winning the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup final against Oman on Thursday in Basra, Iraq.

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