Vote to okay ministers delayed after court clamps transition government’s powers

Vote to okay ministers delayed after court clamps transition government’s powers

Appointments of David Bitan, Tzipi Hotovely, Yitzhak Cohen and Yifat Shasha-Biton reportedly put off indefinitely after High Court says PM can only tap new ministers in some cases

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at his office in Jerusalem, December 1, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at his office in Jerusalem, December 1, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

An upcoming vote to approve a number of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ministerial selections has been delayed indefinitely following a ruling from Israel’s top court questioning the authority of a transition government to make cabinet appointments, Hebrew media reported Thursday.

Netanyahu on Sunday nominated three lawmakers to become ministers after being forced to drop all his own cabinet posts due to criminal charges against him.

While those appointments were expected to be approved by the government over the telephone, on Wednesday the Walla news site reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit advised Netanyahu that an actual meeting should be called for the vote, due to corruption suspicions against his pick for agriculture minister, Likud MK David Bitan.

The court ruling, however, freezes the appointment of Bitan as well as those of Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, who was tapped for the position of diaspora affairs minister, Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen, who was appointed housing minister, and Kulanu-turned-Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who is being moved from the Housing Ministry to the top post in the Welfare Ministry.

The ruling was handed down in response to a petition against the government’s approval of Naftali Bennett as defense minister in November.

The High Court of Justice upheld the appointment, but indicated there were limits on a transition government’s rights to name new ministers.

“Unlike a government that receives the trust of the Knesset, which is granted considerable freedom of action concerning appointing ministers, a transition government must refrain from making changes to the makeup [of the cabinet] if it is not required to ensure its proper functioning,” the justices wrote in their ruling.

They also 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.

Illustrative: Supreme Court justices arrive for a High Court  hearing on December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu who has held various ancillary mnistry posts durning his time as prime minister, was forced to give up the Health, Welfare and Diaspora Affairs portfolios to due criminal charges against him. The charges do not require he step down as prime minister.

The appointment of Yaakov Litzman as Helath 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK David Bitan (R) at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on June 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police recommended last year that Bitan be indicted on multiple corruption charges including bribery, fraud and money laundering 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.

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.

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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