Likud MK David Bitan on Friday announced he was withdrawing from his nomination as agriculture minister after an upcoming vote to approve a number of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ministerial selections was delayed indefinitely following a ruling from Israel’s top court questioning the authority of a transition government to make cabinet appointments.
“Following the delay in the appointment of the ministers, I decided to waive my appointment as agriculture minister,” Bitan said in a statement.
“It’s unfortunate that an appointment that should have been made two years ago was repeatedly delayed under various pretexts until we’ve come to a point where it is devoid of meaning,” he said in what appeared to be an implicit criticism of the premier.
Last week Netanyahu’s spokesman released a statement saying the prime minister had promised Bitan a ministerial post well before the police investigation into the latter’s conduct. “The prime minister kept his word,” the spokesman added.
Netanyahu on Sunday nominated three lawmakers to become ministers after being forced to drop all his cabinet posts due to criminal charges against him.
While those appointments were expected to be approved by the government over the telephone, on Wednesday the Walla news site reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit advised Netanyahu that an actual meeting should be called for the vote, due to corruption suspicions against Bitan.
Police recommended last year that Bitan be indicted on multiple corruption charges including bribery, fraud and money laundering over allegations he accepted money in exchange for political favors while he served as an MK and previously as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion.
While he has denied wrongdoing, Bitan stepped down from his role as coalition whip in 2017 shortly after news of the police investigation broke.
The court ruling froze the appointment of Bitan as well as Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, who was tapped for the position of diaspora affairs minister, Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen, who was appointed housing minister, and Kulanu-turned-Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who is being moved from the Housing Ministry to the top post in the Welfare Ministry.
The ruling was handed down in response to a petition against the government’s approval of Naftali Bennett as defense minister in November.
The High Court of Justice upheld the appointment, but indicated there were limits on a transition government’s ability to name new ministers.
“Unlike a government that receives the trust of the Knesset, which is granted considerable freedom of action concerning appointing ministers, a transition government must refrain from making changes to the makeup [of the cabinet] if it is not required to ensure its proper functioning,” the justices wrote in their ruling.
They also said there was a need to differentiate between cases where a minister who quit or died and those that would not result in a “governing vacuum,” such as a desire to shuffle the cabinet for political reasons.
Netanyahu who has held various ancillary ministry posts during his time as prime minister, was forced to give up the Health, Welfare and Diaspora Affairs portfolios due to criminal charges against him. The charges do not require he step down as prime minister.
The appointment of Yaakov Litzman as Health Minister was approved before the court ruling.
Under Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, a transition government can appoint a lawmaker to a ministerial post without needing the approval of the full Knesset.
Israel has had a transition government since December 2018, when the Knesset voted to dissolve and go to early elections. A third round of elections will be held March 2, after the previous two failed to result in a government, a first in Israeli history.
Netanyahu has made numerous ministerial appointments while heading a transition government, including tapping Bennett as defense minister, Israel Katz as foreign minister and Amir Ohana as justice minister.
Netanyahu’s cabinet currently includes two ministers that police recommended stand trial for corruption: Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas and Litzman, the head of United Torah Judaism. Likud MK Haim Katz stepped down as welfare minister in August after the attorney general announced corruption charges against him.
Netanyahu, in November, became the first sitting prime minister with charges against him when Mandelblit announced he would indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges.
Mandelblit ruled that Netanyahu does not have to resign as prime minister, as he currently heads a caretaker government so the action would have “no practical relevance.” But he said the premier did have to relinquish his other posts.
Netanyahu had promised the High Court of Justice that he would quit all positions except prime minister by the end of 2019. Due to a now-defunct, but not-yet-replaced coalition agreement from the 20th Knesset, one portfolio was promised to a Shas lawmaker while the other two were reserved for Likud MKs.