Bill aimed at returning Deri to cabinet passes first Knesset plenum reading

Proposal clears with 63 votes in favor to 55 against; Lapid: ‘A happy day for criminals’; Likud MK claims law ‘will strengthen the standing of the judicial branch’

Aryeh Deri speaks during a Shas party faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Aryeh Deri speaks during a Shas party faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset advanced a bill on Monday to enable Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to his ministerial posts, after the High Court of Justice ruled his position in the cabinet was unreasonable in the extreme due to a recent criminal conviction.

The proposal cleared its first plenum reading with 63 votes in favor to 55 against.

The bill will now return to committee for debate ahead of its second and third readings.

The bill, which came some two months after the High Court found Deri’s twin appointments as health and interior minister “unreasonable in the extreme,” opens the door for Netanyahu to reappoint Deri.

Deri was not present at the Knesset vote on Tuesday evening.

The bill is an amendment to Basic Law: The Government, and prohibits all courts, including the High Court, from exercising any judicial review over ministerial appointments.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session in the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 20, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The legislation does provide for extra Knesset oversight over ministerial appointments and also grants the Knesset the ability to remove a minister from office under certain circumstances.

The High Court’s decision ordering Deri to be dismissed in January generated outrage among coalition parties and Shas in particular, as they argued that the ruling interfered with the will of the electorate.

“We believe that this law will strengthen the standing of the judicial branch, which can return to focusing on those areas in which it has an advantage over other branches of government and won’t encroach on the boundaries of the legislative branch,” said coalition whip MK Ofir Katz, who sponsored the bill.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid decried the bill as “a happy day for criminals.”

“The law that allows a (twice) convicted criminal to become a minister passed its first reading,” Yesh Atid head Lapid tweeted. “That’s the only thing this government is concerned with — not the cost of living, not health, not security — only corruption laws and vested interests.”

Head of the Yesh Atid party MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on March 20, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar lambasted the bill for seeking to circumvent the High Court.

“What are the motivations for these amendments? … It is just personal interests. The purpose of this law is transparent, to try and take care of someone whose appointment the High Court struck down, and have him appointed a minister despite this decision,” said Sa’ar.

According to the legislation, revised in committee, 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 introduced is aimed at curbing judicial oversight over appointments of deputy ministers.

Several weeks ago, before the bill’s 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 that “not everything should be judicable,” adding that the court’s current ability to review appointments constitutes “a problem of taking power without responsibility,” and “he who has the authority bears the responsibility.”

Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri after a being sentenced in a plea bargain for tax offenses at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on February 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 then changed the law’s language to apply the fitness test only to custodial sentences.

On Sunday a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party filed a bill aimed at politically taking over the Central Election Committee, but quickly withdrew it when it was met with a swift and strong backlash.

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.

Michael Bachner and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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