Chief Justice Hayut skips annual meeting with PM at Knesset

Bill to restore Deri as minister by disempowering High Court submitted to Knesset

Coalition parties said aiming for preliminary reading next week; AG reportedly probing if Shas leader has violated court disqualification by continuing to meet ministry officials

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, leads a faction meeting, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, leads a faction meeting, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The coalition submitted a bill to the Knesset on Monday that aims to restore Shas party leader Aryeh Deri as a government minister, despite the High Court of Justice disqualifying him last month from serving in the cabinet.

The bill would change one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws by stripping the High Court of the power to disqualify ministerial appointments. It has been signed by 36 members of Knesset, and the coalition hopes to see it brought for a preliminary reading in the parliament on Wednesday next week, the Haaretz daily reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to fire Deri in January, after the High Court ruled that the recently convicted lawmaker could not serve as a cabinet minister.

Deri, who is also vice prime minister, was appointed health and interior minister when Netanyahu’s new government was sworn in last December. 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, but the Shas leader has vowed to return, a goal backed by all coalition parties.

The bill to change 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 custodial prison sentence that ended less than seven years previously and that had been deemed to carry “moral turpitude.” It was precisely 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.

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

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 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a plenum session for Knesset’s 74th birthday, in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the Haaretz report, the newly proposed bill did not go through the process of a legal review and it is not clear if it is sufficient to cancel the High Court ruling against Deri.

To date, the High Court has never struck down a Basic Law or one of its clauses, including the change that allowed Deri to become a minister in the current government.

In the meantime, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is looking into whether Deri violated the court order disqualifying him by continuing to be involved in ongoing ministry business, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.

After he was fired, fellow Shas party members Michael Malchieli and Yoav Ben-Tzur were appointed as acting ministers of the interior and health ministries, respectively. However, Deri is still involved in the running of both ministries and regularly holds meetings with ministry officials, including in his private home, according to the report.

On Monday, the attorney general’s office sent a letter to director-generals of the interior, health and finance ministries, asking for clarifications and stressing that civil servants from those ministries should not be working with Deri on ministry affairs, the report said.

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 2021, when his party entered the opposition. The court ruled in 2015 that his prior conviction did not disqualify him from the position, but said it was “borderline unreasonable.”

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.

The plans have seen raised tensions between the government and the Supreme Court.

On Monday, the Knesset celebrated its 74th anniversary with a special ceremony in the plenum that was marked by heated speeches about the overhaul.

Supreme Court Chief of Justice Ester Hayut speaks during a ceremony for newly graduated lawyers at the Jerusalem congress center on January 31, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Before the Knesset ceremony, there was a traditional anniversary meeting held between those who symbolize the ruling bodies of Israel. The meeting was supposed to include President Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu, opposition leader Yair Lapid, speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut.

However, Hayut did not attend the meeting, which usually only lasts around 20 minutes, Hebrew media reported. She did arrive later for the Knesset plenum ceremony.

Hayut’s office said in a statement Sunday that she would not be at the meeting due to scheduling demands and court deliberations where her presence was required. However, the Walla news site noted that the court finishes its work day at 2 p.m., before the meeting at the Knesset was held, and that she was purposefully boycotting the meeting.

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