Opposition MK: Changes insufficient, Deri won't be minister

Bill aimed at returning Deri to cabinet cleared for plenum vote as some changes made

Legislation eliminating High Court oversight of minister picks now lets opposition force PM to explain appointment; legal aides say updated version may still be struck down

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) reads a letter to Shas chair Aryeh Deri, informing Deri that he must remove him from ministerial office, at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) reads a letter to Shas chair Aryeh Deri, informing Deri that he must remove him from ministerial office, at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The coalition on Wednesday advanced legislation personally tailored for returning Shas party leader Aryeh Deri to the cabinet, sending a bill eliminating High Court oversight of ministerial appointments to the Knesset plenum for its first reading.

The bill, passed last month in a preliminary reading, was approved by a special parliamentary committee set up to debate the proposed change, which comes weeks after the High Court of Justice found Deri’s twin appointments as health and interior minister “unreasonable in the extreme” due to past offenses.

Initiated by Shas MK Moshe Arbel, the bill would open the door for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reappoint Deri, after the court and attorney general forced the premier to fire Deri from his cabinet in January.

The committee voted 9-6 in favor of bringing the bill for its first of three plenum votes, which was expected to be held this coming Monday.

The committee’s legal adviser Eyal Lev Ari said changes had been introduced in the bill’s text that would allow for some Knesset oversight over ministerial picks.

According to the revised version, the opposition’s largest faction will be able to demand a separate plenum vote to approve up to a quarter of the incoming ministers, if there is a doubt that they meet the legal criteria.

Additionally, 40 lawmakers will be able to file a demand to oust an individual minister — which must then be approved by the House Committee and by a majority of lawmakers — and 40 MKs will also have the power to call a plenum session in which the prime minister would be compelled to respond to arguments against a specific appointment and explain why it is legal. The designated minister will also be allowed to respond during such a session.

Another change that was introduced is aimed at curbing judicial oversight over appointments of deputy ministers.

A committee debate on a law eliminating High Court oversight for ministerial appointments, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 15, 2023. (Danny Shem Tov/Knesset)

During the committee discussion, Lev Ari said that the fact that the law would go into immediate effect creates legal difficulties since it would be viewed as tailored for a specific individual, increasing the chances of the High Court striking it down over “misuse of the Knesset’s authority.” However, he said he couldn’t unequivocally say the bill crosses that line.

The Knesset’s legal adviser, Sagit Afik, said she wasn’t convinced the added measures solve the legal difficulties, “but they increase transparency and the Knesset’s oversight and this could be welcome.” She also said she wasn’t convinced it was right to include appointments of deputy ministers in the updated bill.

The legal advisers, as well as opposition lawmakers, said an adequate change to make the bill balanced would be to include a clause saying the law will enter effect at a future date, such as the next Knesset.

During the discussion, Labor MK Efrat Rayten said that “this law being filed after the latest [High Court] ruling makes it impossible to disconnect and claim this isn’t personally tailored legislation. It is clear that this is a personal law.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky said that even with the new changes, “there is a mechanism here for the government to do whatever they want anyway.” She said there was “no public support” for the law, calling it “an utter insult to the intelligence of Israel’s citizens.”

“Let it go. Deri won’t be a minister,” Malinovsky said.

Then Health and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri a cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several weeks ago, before the preliminary reading, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a co-architect of the coalition’s plan to greatly expand the executive branch’s power by removing judicial checks, said “not everything should be judicable,” adding that the court’s current ability to review appointments “is a problem of taking power without responsibility,” and “he who has the authority bears the responsibility.”

An amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government, the bill establishes that: “There will be no judicial review by judicial court regarding any matter related to or arising from the appointment of a minister and his removal from office, with the exception of compliance with the eligibility conditions set forth in section 6” in the same law.

In December, the coalition pushed through a change to the same Basic Law: The Government to smooth Deri’s initial appointment, following his 2022 suspended sentence for tax offenses.

Seeking to avoid a ruling by the Central Elections Committee on whether Deri’s conviction carried “moral turpitude,” a determination that would have blocked him from political office for seven years, the coalition changed the law’s language to apply the fitness test only to custodial sentences.

In addition to his January 2022 conviction for tax fraud, Deri served prison time for a 1999 bribery conviction related to his conduct while a minister, and was also convicted again in 2003. In its explosive January 2022 ruling, the High Court said Netanyahu’s decision to appoint a convicted financial criminal as minister in charge of the large Health Ministry and Interior Ministry budgets was “unreasonable in the extreme.”

The court also ruled that the principle of estoppel barred Deri from ministerial office, because in his January 2022 plea bargain he gave the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court the impression he was quitting politics permanently in order to secure the deal.

Deri denies that he ever committed to permanently retiring from political life.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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