Amid AG pushback, cabinet delays appointment of new Transportation Ministry chief
Legal officials say there’s obstacle to approving appointment of Miri Regev confidant; former Levin adviser with no legal qualifications okayed as Justice Ministry director general
Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel
In a blow to Transportation Minister Miri Regev, the cabinet on Sunday decided to postpone a vote on her controversial appointment of a former aide and political operative — who has been deemed unfit by legal advisers and a civil service panel — to head the ministry.
Regev reportedly told the assembled ministers that “the era of bureaucrats was over,” but a decision was still made to postpone the vote on Moshe Ben Zaken’s appointment for a week.
Regev did apparently have the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly said at the cabinet meeting that “a political appointment is appropriate and sometimes even necessary.”
Shortly before the meeting, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara backed a civil service panel’s determination that Regev’s pick was unqualified to be her ministry’s director general.
Baharav-Miara announced her opposition to the appointment of Ben Zaken in a letter to cabinet ministers, according to several Hebrew news outlets. She reportedly wrote that she believed there was a legal obstacle to approving the appointment and that it may impair the functioning of the Transportation Ministry.
Yael Cohen, legal adviser to the Transportation Ministry, issued a similar opinion on Sunday, saying there was a legal impediment to the appointment.
On Wednesday, the Senior Appointments Advisory Committee cited Ben Zaken’s past as a political operative in deeming him unfit for the job. While the committee’s recommendations are not binding, the government rarely goes against them.
Regev was overheard in the Knesset hallway saying into her phone that “it can’t be that some senior bureaucrats are going to tell a minister whom they can appoint as their director,” the religious news site Kipa reported shortly after the panel recommended against Ben Zaken.
The clash was the latest in a series of showdowns between Netanyahu’s new government and the judiciary. Last week, Justice Minister Yariv Levin outlined a four-point reform plan that would neuter judicial independence and establish parliamentary supremacy, bringing tensions between the branches to a crescendo.
Baharav-Miara previously attacked the government’s reform plan as a danger to Israel’s democracy. Various Likud members known to be loyal to Netanyahu have threatened to fire the attorney general over controversial decisions in the past months, albeit before being voted in to power.
While the vote on Ben Zaken was delayed, the cabinet on Sunday did approve a number of key appointments.
Netanyahu’s longtime political ally and Iran hawk Tzachi Hanegbi was approved as national security adviser and head of the National Security Council.
Itamar Donenfeld, a former adviser to Levin, was confirmed as director general of the Justice Ministry despite having no legal background or qualifications and despite reported pushback from ministry officials.
Yossi Fuchs, who ran on the Likud party’s slate in the election but didn’t make it into the Knesset, was rubberstamped as cabinet secretary.
Netanyahu confidant Yossi Shelli was formally named director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who served as director general of the Health Ministry for a five-year term that included the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, will return to that role.
His appointment comes after Health Minister Aryeh Deri requested a significant pay raise for the position, with the monthly salary jumping by NIS 40,000 (approximately $11,500) to NIS 90,000 (approximately $25,500). The move was apparently meant to bring Bar Siman-Tov’s salary in line with those of his predecessors, though they were senior doctors and therefore entitled to a larger paycheck. The Finance Ministry pushed back against the demand.
In addition, Ronen Peretz was appointed director general of the Interior Ministry.
Both the health and interior ministries are headed by Shas leader Deri. The Haredi party leader’s appointment is being challenged in the High Court due to his conviction last year on tax offenses, for which he received a suspended prison sentence.
In addition to appointments, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation met on Sunday. The government panel moved the stalled Tel Aviv metro project another small step forward, approving the advancement of legislation held over from the past Knesset.
Pushed by Regev and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the so-called Metro Law will create the funding and oversight mechanism necessary to embark upon Israel’s most ambitious infrastructure project to date. Just a week ago, Regev said she would oppose the central-Israel based metro plan unless it worked to connect to the country’s northern and southern communities.
Although the bill had broad support and passed its first reading in the past Knesset, it fell victim to politicking in the aftermath of the last government’s decision to dissolve the Knesset and call snap elections. Likud and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism joined all parties in the current coalition in stonewalling the bill’s final passage.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.