ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Ruling further raises tensions between coalition, judiciary

High Court rules unanimously against mayoral election law that would benefit Deri ally

Judges say changes to cooling-off period for acting mayor must take effect only after next municipal poll; note legislation seemed ‘tailor-made’ to benefit Boaz Yosef

Acting Tiberias mayor Boaz Yosef at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, in petitions against the so-called "Tiberias law," on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Acting Tiberias mayor Boaz Yosef at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, in petitions against the so-called "Tiberias law," on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a unanimous decision by a nine-judge panel, the High Court of Justice ruled Sunday night that a law passed by the coalition earlier this month should enter into effect only after the upcoming municipal elections.

The ruling prevents the acting mayor of Tiberias, Boaz Yosef, an ally of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, for whom it is widely believed the legislation was passed, from continuing his run for office.

The law — passed on July 5 and frozen by the court on July 20 — voided the previous one-term cooling-off period for acting mayors who wish to run for the elected position of mayor, requiring just a 90-day wait instead.

Sunday’s ruling is likely to further exacerbate tensions between the judiciary and the government, already strained to the extreme due to the coalition’s legislative agenda to restrain judicial review and legal oversight over its activities and bills, and take control over the appointment of judges.

The justices had expressed heavy skepticism of the government’s position during the course of a five-hour-long hearing Sunday, noting the seemingly overt personal nature of the law, leading High Court Justice Noam Sohlberg to recommend at the end of the hearing that Yosef refrain from standing as a candidate in the upcoming October election.

Sohlberg strongly intimated that the nine-justice panel favored a situation in which the law would come into effect only after the coming municipal elections in October, but was seeking a way to avoid a definitive ruling on the legislation.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (center) and Supreme Court justices arrive for a court hearing at the court in Jerusalem to hear petitions against the so-called “Tiberias Law”, on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Yosef immediately rejected the recommendation, leading to the unanimous decision by all nine judges a short while later that the law must be interpreted as coming into effect only after the election.

The reasoning behind the ruling was not issued due to time constraints, and will be published separately at a later date.

The so-called Tiberias law appeared tailored specifically to enable Yosef to run for mayor, as underlined in comments by its primary sponsor, Likud MK Amit Halevi, and remarks by other coalition MKs during the legislative process in committee.

“The emerging opinion of the court is that the implementation of the law needs to be postponed,” said Sohlberg at the end of the hearing.

The court’s suggestion was seemingly designed to avoid a direct ruling against Knesset legislation, seen as a measure of last resort, but Yosef’s rejection meant the justices had to issue a decision.

The court added it was refraining from ruling on the constitutional aspects of the case.

Tiberias Acting Mayor Boaz Yosef on the city promenade, May 15, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Lawyers for the organizations and individuals who filed petitions against the law argued during the hearing that it should be struck down by the High Court because it was narrowly designed to help a specific individual.

And they argued it gave Yosef, effectively the incumbent mayor, an unfair advantage in the upcoming elections over other candidates, and therefore harmed their constitutional right to be elected.

The High Court justices expressed concern throughout the hearing over the personal nature of the law, but were relatively dismissive of constitutional arguments against the legislation.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut expressed skepticism about the legality of the legislation, stating it was “clearly a personal bill.”

Likud MK Amit Halevi leads a House Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It has been widely reported that Yosef is a close associate of senior coalition figure and Shas party leader Deri. Deri, while previously serving as interior minister, appointed Yosef to the acting mayor position in 2020 after the elected mayor was ousted from office for failing to pass a municipal budget.

Yosef’s lawyer Ilan Bombach denied that the two figures were close, calling the allegations “total lies” and insisting that they were not friends, party colleagues or had any other relationship.

The requirement for a cooling-off period was introduced in 2008 to keep unelected officials from enjoying the advantages of an incumbent.

“The law is personal because it is tailor-made to fit the candidate from Tiberias, and there are MKs that said this out loud,” Hayut said. “The Knesset legal adviser thought that because of the very significant difficulties of the change in the rules of the game and the personalization, it is reasonable that the law only come into force at the next election.”

“The MKs decided differently and explicitly said that it was needed now because of Tiberias,” she added.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut during a hearing of petitions against the so-called ‘Tiberias law’ at the High Court in Jerusalem on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Hayut was referencing conversations held by members of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee about the possibility of either extending Yosef’s tenure as acting mayor or passing a law to allow him to run for mayor, due to what they said was his exemplary management of Tiberias which has faced multiple crises in recent years.

In an opinion handed to the court Wednesday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said the measure provides an unfair advantage to candidates who serve in caretaker roles and should not be implemented in the coming municipal votes.

At the hearing Sunday, Justice Anat Baron also criticized the law as “tailor-made in terms of its timing, because there is only one person who fills that slot at this moment,” while Justice Alex Stein said: “My difficulty with the law, given the date of its application, is that it’s personal.”

Justice Fogleman charged that “the central government gave someone a direct advantage in the electoral process.”

Yitzhak Burt, the attorney representing the Knesset, said there was no reason the law should be canceled because it simply restores the legal situation to what it was in 2008.

“The attorney general’s position that it is not constitutional is very problematic. The law balances between two values — the right of [caretaker officials] to be elected, and for the residents to choose them,” he argued.

Hayut responded by charging that before 2008, there was no legal framework with regard to the issue.

Attorney Tomer Naor, representing the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the petitioners, said the law carries “a heavy stench of public corruption and a violation of every public norm.”

He slammed the Knesset for passing the “personal law” instead of dealing with important issues, such as the rising cost of living and the security of the country.

A petition was filed against the law by Yosef’s rival in the Tiberias race, Shani Illouz, as well as several other organizations.

Municipal elections are slated for October 31.

The coalition has previously been accused of pushing legislation tailored to benefit certain individuals, including Deri.

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)

Deri was forced out of his positions as health minister and interior minister in January after the High Court ruled that his appointment was “unreasonable in the extreme” given his previous criminal convictions for abuse of public funds.

The coalition passed a law on Monday stripping judges of the ability to use a so-called reasonableness test to overturn governing decisions and appointments. The law was the first part of the government’s divisive legislative package to overhaul the judiciary.

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