Despite legal warnings, ministers advance bill aimed at putting Deri back in cabinet

Ministerial Committee for Legislation backs proposal that would shackle court’s ability to overrule ministerial postings, day after attorney general’s office came out against move

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)

Ministers on Sunday afternoon advanced a bill aimed at enabling Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s return to a ministerial post despite his recent disqualification over a tax offenses conviction, ignoring objections voiced a day earlier by the attorney general.

The bill would amend the existing Basic Law: Government to insert a clause placing ministerial appointments outside the purview of the court system, despite speculation that Deri’s reinstatement would be struck down by the High Court if challenged. It comes amid a wider effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to reshape the relationship between the government and the courts, though critics say the moves will gut an essential check on untrammeled government power.

On Saturday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara’s office came out against the bill, predicting the legislation would likely be struck down by the High Court of Justice if passed.

Nonetheless, cabinet members in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted Sunday to give the bill government backing, likely easing its path through the Knesset.

The bill’s language stipulates that no court will be able to exercise judicial review over the appointment of cabinet ministers or be able to remove them from office. The one exception would be if an individual is appointed as a minister despite not having the formal qualifications required by law.

Deri, who is also vice prime minister, was appointed health and interior minister when Netanyahu’s new government was sworn in late last year. However, the High Court ruled that granting the Shas chief a cabinet post was “unreasonable in the extreme,” due to his past criminal convictions — including one last year for tax offenses — and because he had falsely convinced a judge last year that he was permanently withdrawing from political life to secure a lenient plea bargain.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 11, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Netanyahu, who complied with the court ruling and reluctantly fired Deri three weeks ago, has since been scrambling to find a workaround, with Deri, a key coalition ally, demanding that the prime minister find a way to reinstate him as a minister.

In a legal opinion sent to Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Saturday, Baharav-Miara’s deputies Gil Limon and Avital Sompolinsky opined that the bill would render government appointments a “black hole,” immune from judicial review and remove “constitutional safeguards” against appointing corrupt officials to senior posts.

They also warned that the court could determine the bill is an abuse of power, noting that the government was attempting to amend laws to meet the personal political desires of a single individual.

“The legislating of another personal arrangement,” they said, “will result in a line being crossed.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at her inauguration ceremony in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill marks the coalition’s second attempt to bring Deri back to office since the November 1 election. It had previously passed an amendment allowing those given suspended sentences over the past seven years to serve as ministers, as is the case with Deri. Though the law passed and was ultimately upheld by the High Court, it was not enough to prevent the Shas leader from being disqualified as minister.

Among other measures, the contentious judicial overhaul will enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws with a minimal majority, even after the High Court has struck them down. While the coalition says the radical shakeup 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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