(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The High Court of Justice sharply criticized the government for failing to appoint a full-fledged health minister but - for the first time in the state's history - only a deputy minister to run the ministry.
However, the justices - headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch - said they would hand down their decision on a petition by the Israel Medical Association demanding the immediate appointment of a minister at a later date.
All of the justices made it clear they thought the state of affairs in the health sector was poor and that measures needed to be taken to improve it. However, one of the key questions regarding the petition is whether the High Court is empowered to order the government to appoint a minister.
"Perhaps it is a good thing that the time has come for someone to intervene in the health sphere," Beinisch said. "The situation is not optimal, to say the least.
But Justice Elyakim Rubinstein cautioned, "Perhaps it is time to make a change. The question is whether we have the [legal] tools to make it."
Attorney Orna Lin, representing the IMA, told the court that the Basic Law: Government, as viewed today following High Court rulings, made it clear that the Health Ministry required a minister.
"Since the attorney-general issued his guidelines, since the passage of the National Health Insurance Law in 1994, and since we have matured somewhat regarding the constitution, the concept of the Basic Law: Government is that every ministry must have a head. Although we have many heads in this government... In this case, we are talking here about a ministry without a head," Lin said.
According to the coalition agreement, Netanyahu will serve as health minister throughout the government's tenure, while United Torah Judaism chairman Ya'acov Litzman will be deputy health minister. However, the prime minister promised that Litzman would be able to make decisions as if he were a minister and that he, Netanyahu, would vote Litzman's preferences on health issues in cabinet sessions.
Since 1953, UTJ has declined to have cabinet ministers; instead its MKs have run ministries with deputy ministers with no ministers in charge.
The IMA regards this as illegal, and says it denigrates the Health portfolio and that there are statutory functions that only a full minister can perform. For example, only a health minister can serve as chairman of the Israel Health Council, vote in the cabinet, sign regulations, approve nominations and vote in ministerial committees.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that Kadima MK Rachel Adato, a physician and lawyer who previously demanded that a minister be appointed, decided to back down from her demand as soon as she learned Netanyahu's choice was Litzman, who is regarded as very capable and serious and twice served as Knesset Finance Committee chairman. Adato told the Post on Wednesday that while she would have preferred Litzman to be the minister, he would be effective as a deputy minister as well.
Beinisch said in the court session that she didn't know how the prime minister would be able, with his limited time, be able to function as minister, and that he could nominally be in charge for only three months.
Justice Hanan Meltzer said it was preferable that there be a prime minister and ministers in charge of each portfolio.
Lin said that Netanyahu chose for himself the additional portfolio of "minister for economic strategies," which never existed before, and that this post conflicted head-on with views of the Health Ministry, which has regularly clashed on policy matters with the Finance Ministry.