Shas lawmaker forgoes ministerial appointment after approval delayed

Shas lawmaker forgoes ministerial appointment after approval delayed

Yitzhak Cohen says he doesn’t want to hurt chances of current minister getting another cabinet post, after top court questioned transition government’s authority to name ministers

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen attends a Shas party campaign event in Jerusalem on July 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen attends a Shas party campaign event in Jerusalem on July 22, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A deputy minister from the Shas party on Friday withdrew his nomination as housing minister, after approval of his appointment was indefinitely delayed following a High Court of Justice ruling questioning the authority of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s transitional government to make cabinet appointments.

Netanyahu last week promoted Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen as part of a cabinet reshuffle after being forced to give up his own cabinet posts due to corruption charges against him.

Among the posts Netanyahu had to give up was the Welfare Ministry, but that’s a portfolio the ultra-Orthodox Shas is apparently reluctant to hold because of the minister’s responsibility of approving work permits for Shabbat.

So, Netanyahu decided to shift current housing Housing Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton from Likud to the Welfare Ministry and give Cohen housing.

Explaining his decision to forgo the appointment, Cohen said it would prevent Shasha-Biton from being given another cabinet position under the transition government.

“I did not want my appointment to be at the expense of her dismissal. This is not my way and is against my character,” he said in a statement.

Housing Minister Yifat Shassa-Biton speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Flash90)

Shas lawmaker Meshulam Nahari will instead be appointed as deputy welfare minister with expanded authorities, the party said. It was not clear who would be nominated as welfare minister.

In its ruling last week, the High Court said as a transition government does not have backing from the Knesset, it “must refrain from making changes to the makeup [of the cabinet] if it is not required to ensure its proper functioning.”

The judges 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.

A vote on the appointments, which also included the nominations of Likud lawmakers Tzipi Hotovely as diaspora minister and David Bitan as agriculture minister, was subsequently delayed after having already reportedly been put off because of corruption suspicions against Bitan.

Likud MK David Bitan at the Knesset on January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

Bitan, who police have recommended be indicted on multiple corruption charges including bribery, fraud and money laundering, announced last week he was withdrawing from his nomination, citing delays “under various pretexts.”

The ruling came in response to a petition against the government’s approval of Naftali Bennett as defense minister in November, an appointment the High Court upheld.

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 posts while heading a transition government, including tapping Bennett as defense minister, Israel Katz as foreign minister and Amir Ohana as justice minister.

Police recommended last year that Bitan be charged 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. A report Wednesday said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit could announce charges in the coming weeks.

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.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem, December 20, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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