ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Bill said aiming to restore Deri as minister by foiling High Court power to nix him

Coalition reportedly working on Basic Law change that would, in the name of upholding democracy and voters’ will, deny courts the power to disqualify a ministerial appointment

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Shas faction meeting in Knesset, January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Shas faction meeting in Knesset, January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government is working on a bill aimed at restoring Shas party leader Aryeh Deri to his ministerial positions by removing from the High Court of Justice the power to disqualify him, as it has already done.

Details of the proposed changes to one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws were first reported by Channel 13, which claimed to have seen an internal coalition document discussing the plan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week was forced to fire Deri after the High Court of Justice ruled that the recently convicted lawmaker could not serve as a cabinet minister.

Deri was appointed health and interior minister when Netanyahu’s new hardline government was sworn in last month. However, the High Court ruled that granting the Shas chief a cabinet post was “unreasonable in the extreme,” due to both his past criminal convictions and his promise last year to withdraw from political life as part of a plea bargain that he ostensibly did not honor.

Netanyahu agreed to comply with the court’s ruling but noted that he was doing so with “a heavy heart.” The prime minister fired Deri last week, but the Shas leader has vowed to return, a goal backed by all coalition parties.

Media speculation has swirled over how exactly the coalition would restore Deri to office. Channel 13’s report claimed to present a part of the strategy that would apparently clear the path to simply reappoint Deri without the court being able to intervene.

The circulated document states that a bill changing Basic Law: The Government would legislate that no court at any level has the authority “to conduct a judicial review of the appointments of ministers “for any reason whatsoever, except for the eligibility conditions” laid down in Section 6 of the Basic Law.

Section 6 discusses various reasons why a person cannot be a minister, including not holding Israeli citizenship or having been convicted of a criminal offense carrying a prison sentence that did not end more than seven years previously. It was exactly that clause of the law that the coalition recently amended in order to enable Deri to be appointed minister despite his recent suspended sentence for tax offenses.

“The appointment of ministers by the prime minister and with the approval of the Knesset, as well as the decision to transfer them from office, are actions and decisions that are at the core of democratic activity,” the document reads. It goes on to say that in the past, rulings were made “subjecting the will of the voter to the discretion of the court” and that the purpose of removing the court’s veto is to clarify the matter of ministerial appointments, or removal, from office.

Last week, in his first round of media interviews since being fired, Deri told Channel 12: “I’ll be back as a minister when the Knesset passes legislation [allowing for it], whether that’s in two weeks, one month, or two months.”

The Shas chairman said the coalition was working to advance legislation that will allow for him to return to office, while acknowledging that the High Court could well strike down that bill as well.

In February 2022 Deri was convicted after striking a plea bargain with the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, which let him give up his Knesset seat before his sentencing and thus avoid a hearing on whether his tax fraud conviction carried moral turpitude — a designation that would have barred him from holding public office for seven years.

The court at the time believed that Deri was retiring from public life. However, he continued to lead Shas from outside the Knesset and was quickly reinstated as a lawmaker in the November 1 election. Deri then demanded that Netanyahu ensure his way back to the cabinet table, despite the Basic Law: The Government requiring the Central Elections Committee to determine whether his crime carried moral turpitude before he could be appointed a minister.

The coalition rushed through a fix to the Basic Law to allow Deri to be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet on December 29.

Deri previously served 22 months in prison from 2000 to 2002 after he was convicted of taking bribes while serving as interior minister. That verdict carried moral turpitude. In 2013 he returned to politics, reclaiming the leadership of Shas and ultimately returning to serve as interior minister from 2016 until last year when his party entered the opposition. A court had ruled that his prior conviction did not disqualify him from the position.

The government is working on a major judicial overhaul, including enabling the Knesset to legislate laws even after they have been struck down by the High Court.  While the coalition says the move is needed to rein in an over-intrusive court and uphold voters’ will, critics say the changes will significantly damage Israel’s democratic character.

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