Knesset legal adviser: Bill to let convicted person be minister clearly ‘personal’

Committee legal counsel says legislation to allow Aryeh Deri’s appointment would constitute a change to existing law, rather than a mere clarification as proponents argue

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (top L) and Likud MK Yariv Levin (bottom L), during Levin's election as Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas leader Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (top L) and Likud MK Yariv Levin (bottom L), during Levin's election as Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Knesset legal adviser said Wednesday that the incoming coalition’s bill to change the law on who is eligible to serve as minister has a “personal aspect” to it and would constitute a substantive change of the current law, rather than a mere clarification as its proponents have argued.

The bill is an attempt to clear the way for Shas leader Aryeh Deri to be appointed minister despite his suspended sentence for a recent tax fraud conviction — a demand by Deri in order to join the prospective new coalition lead by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Current law bars a person from serving as a minister if they have been sentenced to prison within the past seven years. It is vague on whether this applies only to custodial sentences or also to suspended terms, and the attorney general recommended that the head of the Central Elections Committee rule on the matter.

The bill would change the law to specify that only custodial sentences preclude a ministerial appointment.

It is currently being prepared by a specially formed committee for its first reading, after passing its preliminary reading Tuesday evening.

The special committee’s legal adviser, Gur Blai, told review panel that the bill “is a constitutional amendment that seeks to reduce a constitutional limit concerning the standard required for the moral purity of some of the ‘players’ in the political system, and it is not proposed to be applied in the future…but immediately.”

Bligh said the bill “therefore has a significant ‘personal’ aspect that makes it difficult for the committee to discuss ‘behind a veil of ignorance,’ and naturally the discussion will be influenced by the identity of the parties the amendment affects.”

Deputy Attorney General Avital Sompolinsky added: “We know exactly which ‘player’ this thing will immediately affect.”

Under his coalition agreement with Netanyahu, Deri is slated to become interior and health minister in the government. A year ago, when he signed a plea deal in his tax offense case, he told the court he would retire from public life and had no intention to remain in politics.

The bill is part of a legislative push by Netanyahu’s Likud to appease its governing partners on several issues, and which it hopes to wrap up next week, just days before the December 21 expiration of Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government.

Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with MK Yariv Levin during Levin’s election as Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bligh also told the panel he was of the opinion that the current law applies to both custodial and suspended sentences, and therefore the proposed change is an alteration, rather than a clarification.

“Our position is that the phrase ‘imprisonment’ in Section 6(c)(1) of the Basic Law: The Government includes both actual imprisonment and a suspended sentence, and therefore the proposed amendment is not a clarifying amendment but rather changes the law,” the legal adviser said.

Legal counsels to committees provide legal opinion and advice to panels preparing bills, but their decisions do not carry the binding weight that a decision by the Knesset’s legal counsel would, according to a Knesset legal department spokesperson.

Under current law, Deri would need to appeal to the Central Elections Committee to decide whether his tax offenses carried moral turpitude, which would determine whether he could so quickly return to ministerial office. The new bill seeks to deprive the CEC of the power to block Deri.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri leaves the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court after pleading guilty on charges of tax offenses as part of a negotiated plea bargain, on January 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the panel that it was “clear that we’re talking about a change” and that this change would mean that “all the fitness laws don’t really apply.”

“The Knesset will telegraph this message — that rules are a suggestion,” Fuchs warned.

Ziv Maor, a lawyer who supports the legal change, told the committee that it would bolster “democracy” because “the public wants Aryeh Deri as a minister.”

Deri’s Shas party won 12 seats in the November 1 election.

“The public knew very well what it was choosing,” added Shas MK Moshe Arbel. “Deri stood at the top of our slate. He was elected. There is a very clear desire for him to be a minister in the government.”

On Monday, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party sent a letter to the Knesset’s legal adviser asking to bar Deri and three other coalition lawmakers — Netanyahu among them — from voting on the bill, arguing that the four, all charged with criminal offenses, had a conflict of interest in voting on such a bill.

Blocking those four from voting could prevent passage of the bill, as the Likud-led bloc has only a four-vote advantage in the Knesset.

Yesh Atid did not respond to a request to clarify whether the Knesset legal adviser had responded.

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