Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party demanded to make ministry legal advisers political appointments as coalition negotiations resumed on Tuesday, which saw Shas' Arye Dery and far-right Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich deliberate over rotating the finance portfolio.
Likud is also demanding the abolition of a database of candidates qualified to serve on the boards of government companies. The database was created to try to prevent political appointments.
Additionally, it seeks to increase competition in the economy and cancel a reform of the matriculation exams instituted by current Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. Canceling the reform would reinstate the requirement that all students take the exams in civics, Bible, literature and history.
Senior Justice Ministry officials slammed Likud’s proposal on the legal advisers. One said that if it becomes law, “the legal adviser would owe his loyalty to the minister who appointed him, not to the rule of law. It would mean abolishing the ministries’ gatekeepers.”
Another official, quoting a former deputy attorney general who criticized a similar bill submitted in 2018, said, “How did Dina Zilber put it? Let’s have obedient advisers, castrated artists, a bridled media and a disciplined nation.”
Currently, ministries’ legal advisers are appointed by the Civil Service Commission, and only civil servants can apply for the job. The advisers’ opinions are binding on their ministries, and they can be fired only with the attorney general’s consent. Administratively, they are subordinate to each ministry’s senior management, but professionally, they answer only to the attorney general.
Their job is to advise ministry employees about the legal aspects of their work and give them the legal tools they need to carry out ministry policy. But according to the attorney general’s orders, they also serve as “gatekeepers” whose job is to uphold and bolster the rule of law.
They wield great power in their ministries, and in recent years, many rightists have argued that this power is excessive.
In 2017, MK Amir Ohana (Likud) together with other MKs submitted a bill to allow ministers to choose their ministry’s legal adviser themselves. In 2021, he submitted the bill again. A similar bill submitted by then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in 2018 would have had legal advisers be appointed by search committees dominated by the ministry director general, though the attorney general and the civil service commissioner would also have had a voice. But none of those bills ever passed.
Discussing Ayelet Shaked’s bill in the Knesset in 2018, then-Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said, “Governability doesn’t mean exercising power with no limits. The vast majority of cabinet ministers are satisfied with their advisers’ performance.” The bill would deal an “enormous” blow to the advisers’ power, he added.
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara told Justice Ministry employees that their jobs and the way they did them shouldn’t depend on which politicians are in power at any given time.
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Another demand on Likud’s list was that in making admissions decisions, universities give priority to demobilized soldiers in sought-after departments like medicine, computer science, engineering, law and accounting. The party also said it wanted to expand the teaching of Zionist history in schools, enact a climate law and advance peace agreements “to end the Israeli-Arab conflict.”
Dery, Smotrich mull rotation for Finance Ministry
A proposal to rotate the finance portfolio that was raised in coalition negotiations between Shas head Arye Dery and far-right Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich continues to be deliberated.
Both Smotrich and Dery have been vying for the position of finance minister during coalition negotiations with the head of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Likud's latest proposal would give Dery both the interior and transportation portfolios, however, Dery made it clear that he was still interested in his proposed compromise, according to which Smotrich will serve as Finance Minister for the first two years of the government's term before rotating it to him for the last two years.
According to political sources, Smotrich's decision depends on the importance of the ministry portfolios that Dery receives as these would be transferred to him during the second half of the government's term.
A Likud source involved in the negotiation details confirmed that this option is being considered, but said that no agreement had yet been reached on this or on the division of other portfolios. Negotiations on the issue will continue between the factions' teams of Benjamin Netanyahu, Dery and Smotrich.
At issue is the distribution of ministerial positions among Netanyahu’s allies who have demanded control over several key ministries, leading to grumbling among his own party’s MKs that "there is not much left for Likud.”
While Likud won 32 seats in the election, the other potential members of the coalition – Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism – collectively won a similar number of seats, making it difficult for Likud to insist on keeping senior government portfolios for itself.
Almost one in every two members of Knesset from Israel's incoming coalition – some 30 lawmakers – will receive ministerial portfolios, officials involved in the negotiations estimated on Tuesday.