High Court sets off coalition fireworks, rules deputy minister can't act as health minister

Court says UTJ's Litzman has 60 days to quit as deputy health minister or to agree to be appointed full-fledged health minister.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
August 23, 2015 19:00
3 minute read.
Yaakov Litzman est confiant. Le prochain gouvernement se fera avec les ultraorthodoxes

Yaakov Litzman est confiant. Le prochain gouvernement se fera avec les ultraorthodoxes. (photo credit: YOEL LEVI)

 
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The High Court of Justice rejected the government’s arrangement that has allowed Deputy Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman to serve as acting health minister despite the fact that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the nominal holder of the portfolio.

The court said that Litzman has 60 days to either quit as deputy health minister or agree to be appointed the full-fledged health minister and assume that job title. The court said that “reality cries out” against the current arrangement.

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The court issued the ruling after Yesh Atid filed a petition in July questioning the current system’s constitutionality.

The arrangement is understood to exist in order to allow haredi (ultra-Orthdox) politicians such as Litzman to circumvent religious objections to being ministers within a secular, Zionist government.

In its petition, Yesh Atid claimed that the arrangement is unconstitutional and that Litzman must either be a nominal full minister or give up the powers of a minister to someone else and function as an actual deputy minister, in accordance with his title. The role of deputy minister is far less powerful.

The court wrote that the “common man” must know which person is responsible for the many controversial and ongoing health issues facing the country. It said that having Netanyahu as the title-holder for the health ministry but Liztman as the actual power-holder creates ambiguity and means that neither of them need to take full responsibility for effectively discharging the role.

A majority of the court also rejected any variation of the current arrangement except a system whereby whoever holds the title “Health Minister” also holds the authority expected of that title.

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The ruling means that Litzman and United Torah Judaism must now decide whether to rescind their traditional religious opposition to accepting the formal title of ministers in a secular-run government or give up some of the ministerial powers they negotiated for in the government coalition bargains.

All five justices on the expanded panel, including Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, Vice President Elyakim Rubinstein, Justice Salim Joubran, Justice Neal Hendel and Justice Hanan Melcer were opposed to the current arrangement, although Naor said he would have left “some room” for Litzman to continue as at present.

Litzman’s office said in response that the ruling would be studied and that the decision on what course of action to take would be decided by the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael.

The council is already set to convene this Wednesday to discuss the issue of Sabbath observance in Jerusalem. The question of adopting ministerial positions has now been added to the agenda. It is considered likely that Litzman will accept the position of minister rather than cede the role to somebody else.

A Ashkenazi haredi politician hasn’t served as a full minister since Yitzhak Meir Cohen of Agudat Yisrael served as Minister of Welfare in the provisional Israeli government from May 1948 until March 1949, and continued in this role in the first, second and third governments of Israel.

He resigned in 1952 due to haredi opposition to the National Service Law for Women. Since then, Ashkenazi haredi MKs have not taken full ministerial positions, basing their objection on the fact that government ministers have responsibility for the actions of the government which they say are frequently not compatible with Jewish law.

Likud officials downplayed the impact of the High Court’s ruling. They denied reports that Litzman would have to receive his ministerial post at the expense of the Likud due to a deal between the two parties.

The Court’s ruling does not impact deputy ministers in the Likud who are serving under Netanyahu, such as deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation Ayoub Kara. The Court is expected to issue a ruling that could be more problematic for Netanyahu next month when it will rule whether he can control the communications ministry and simultaneously serve as prime minister.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who initiated the case, praised the ruling, saying that the public interest defeated narrow political interests. The party reiterated that it was not at war with haredim and that it acted solely in order to ensure that Israel would have a full time minister of health.

Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson said that by accepting a ministry, UTJ would be recognizing Zionism and the state of Israel, steps he said were important for Israel.

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