Coalition advances bill that would return Deri to cabinet, defying High Court ruling

MKs move to outlaw court oversight of appointments, a month after justices found Shas leader’s two ministerial posts ‘unreasonable in the extreme’ due to his past offenses

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for 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 a bill tailored to return Shas leader Aryeh Deri to the cabinet, weeks after the High Court of Justice found his twin appointments as health and interior minister “unreasonable in the extreme” due to past offenses.

Initiated by Shas MK Moshe Arbel, the bill eliminates court oversight over ministerial appointments, opening the door for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reappoint Deri, after the court and attorney general forced Netanyahu to fire Deri from his cabinet in January.

“Not everything should be judicable,” said Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset floor debate before preceding the preliminary reading. Levin, a co-architect of the coalition’s plan to greatly expand the executive branch’s power by removing judicial checks, said 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.”

The bill cleared its preliminary reading 62-53, and will go to the Knesset House Committee for determination on where it will land for further processing, in advance of its next three required readings on the floor.

Deri himself was absent for the vote.

MK Gideon Sa’ar of the center-right opposition party National Unity said that the amendment “will create no-man’s land in the field of appointments,” blocking the court from intervening in appointments of people accused of being under foreign influence or committing horrible crimes.

MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tying the amendment to the coalition’s judicial reform platform, which Sa’ar largely opposes, the former justice minister said the government’s “goal is to create a complete judicial vacuum” so that “for the government, there will be no rules, and it will be able to do whatever it wants without anyone to oversee it.”

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. In its explosive January ruling, the High Court of Justice 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.”

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

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.

Coalition members have also signaled their intention to pass a law prohibiting courts from overruling the government based on “reasonableness,” but on its own, this will likely not be sufficient to overcome the ruling.

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