Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, reportedly angrily hung up the phone on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the premier’s Likud party backed a proposal to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate Supreme Court judges’ alleged conflict of interests.
Passage of the proposal, which was defeated after a stormy Knesset debate Wednesday, could potentially have led to the collapse of the government a mere two months after it was established. Under the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal, the sides are not supposed to promote contentious legislation without their joint consent, and the Likud-backed effort to push through the proposal to investigate the justices was bitterly opposed by Blue and White.
According to the Walla news site, Deri and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, longtime political allies of the premier, tried to convince Netanyahu during a conference call to drop his support for the proposal, but he refused.
Deri then reportedly said in a raised voice: “This will topple the government, you want to topple the government?” before slamming down the phone.
Channel 12 news reported that Deri also said that there are “a million unemployed people and you’re leading [us to] elections.”
After deepening the rift among the coalition parties, the contentious proposal to form a parliamentary committee to investigate Supreme Court justices’ alleged conflicts of interest was rejected by the Knesset.
The proposal failed to muster a majority after Netanyahu, various Likud lawmakers and Shas members skipped the Knesset vote on Wednesday afternoon.
Forty-three lawmakers voted in favor of Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich’s proposal, while 54 voted against it.
Yamina, in a statement after the proposal fell in the plenum, accused Netanyahu and Shas leader Deri of sabotaging the move, noting that 13 lawmakers from Likud and Shas were absent from the vote.
Netanyahu ally and Likud MK Miki Zohar accused President Reuven Rivlin of working to sink the proposal, telling Army Radio that he “tried to do everything to block this proposal. He does this intentionally to hurt Netanyahu.”
Zohar also said that criticism of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic by Rivlin on Wednesday evening was payback for Likud’s backing of the proposed panel to probe judges.
In response, Harel Tuvi, the director of the President’s Residence, slammed Zohar’s “outrageous” claim and called on him to apologize.
Netanyahu and Likud have intensified their rhetoric against the justice system over the past few months as the premier has gone on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies the charges against him, alleging an “attempted coup” involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.
Many on the right have been critical of the top court and issued calls in recent years to rein in its power with Knesset legislation.
The centrist Blue and White party has repeatedly vowed to protect the judiciary, and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said he wouldn’t allow the commission of inquiry to be formed.
“Voting for the formation of a commission of inquiry for judges is a declaration of war on Israeli democracy,” Blue and White said in a statement Wednesday before the vote.
The developments followed a series of investigative reports by Maariv reporter Kalman Libeskind throughout May and June, arguing that various Supreme Court judges had overseen cases in which they appeared to be in conflict of interest.
Justices, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut as well as Uzi Vogelman, Meir Mazuz and others, allegedly removed certain people and issues from the list of their conflicts of interest, oversaw a case related to that person or matter, and then added them back to the list.
The judges rejected the accusations, saying the issues in question had been struck from the list for valid reasons.
Following those reports, the judiciary decided last month to make public the full list of conflicts of interest for Supreme Court judges.
After that release, the Haaretz daily reported more instances in which the justices officiated in cases where they appeared to be in conflict of interest.