After leading vote to dissolve Knesset, PM’s looking at a redo. Is that allowed?

Legal experts say there’s no going back on vote initiating snap elections; Likud official says measure is an effort by Netanyahu to avoid blame for having orchestrated move

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on November 21, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on November 21, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On May 28, two days before the stunning decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call a second election within months of the last one, and with the premier’s coalition-building efforts stuck, the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee convened a meeting during which the legislative body’s legal adviser Eyal Yinon mapped out the options that lay before lawmakers.

Yinon said Netanyahu had until midnight on May 30 to cobble together a coalition and that if he failed to do so, President Reuven Rivlin would be given three days to decide whether or not to appoint another MK to have a chance.

“But there is another option: to dissolve the Knesset. And this can done with a majority of 61 [MKs],” the legal adviser said, detailing the way Netanyahu could ensure no other lawmaker would be given the opportunity to replace him, even if he failed to form a coalition by the deadline.

Dissolving the Knesset would initiate snap elections and the Likud leader would be given an opportunity to build on the 35 seats he had received in April. Netanyahu could also hope to wipe out new nemesis Avigdor Liberman from electoral relevance as retribution for the Yisrael Beytenu chairman’s refusal to join his coalition under the terms offered.

House Committee chairman MK Miki Zohar leads a discussion on voting on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on May 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

But, Yinon warned, loudly enough for all several dozen lawmakers in the room to hear: “This is an act from which there is no return.”

Two days later, 74 MKs voted to dissolve the Knesset and elections were scheduled for September 17.

Hours after the vote, one of Netanyahu’s closest Likud allies, who led the legislative effort to dissolve the Knesset, explained the merits of the move.

“From the moment that it was identified that Lieberman was not going to enter the [Netanyahu’s] government, I proposed to the prime minister that we begin the process of dispersing the Knesset… in order to prevent the risk of a leftist government being established against the will of the public,” MK Miki Zohar tweeted (though Netanyahu’s rival, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, has touted himself as a centrist).

That was then.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem’s reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Less than a month later, a growing number of the 74 lawmakers who voted to drag the country into the year’s second round of elections are now suddenly seeking a do-over.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein announced Tuesday that he had “discovered a parliamentary framework [that would allow for] the cancellation of the most unnecessary elections in Israel’s history.”

Netanyahu himself tweeted that he would “consider” the proposal.

And then, like clockwork, statements began flowing in from Likud MKs as well as the leaders of Kulanu, United Torah Judaism and the Union of Right-Wing Parties, each expressing support for any measure that would allow for the cancellation of the “unnecessary elections” for which they had voted.

In light of the rather glaring about-face, Zohar once again took to Twitter in order to “clarify” how it was that Netanyahu was now pushing a cancellation of the legislation that he himself had aggressively lobbied right-wing lawmakers to support just a month earlier.

“Seventy-four MKs did not want Benny Gantz as their prime minister so we dispersed the Knesset. 2.5 million people wanted Netanyahu, so therefore he should continue to serve as prime minister,” Zohar claimed, including in that number 1.5 million Israelis who voted for right-wing parties other than Likud, apparently surmising they had done so hoping Netanyahu would remain prime minister.

Leader of the Blue White political party MK Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on June 26, 2019. (Flash90)

“If Blue and White could give up on their ‘hatred of Netanyahu’ agenda, we can, through a unity government, prevent these unnecessary elections imposed on us solely because of Liberman,” Zohar added, suggesting that the Yisrael Beytenu leader himself had compelled 74 lawmakers to vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset.

In other words: Likud acted to dissolve the Knesset in order to prevent Benny Gantz from being tasked to form a government. However, the party has no qualms with the former IDF chief of staff it has deemed “leftist” and “unbalanced” serving under Netanyahu in a unity government.

It doesn’t say that you can’t

While Yinon was clear that there was no walking back the May 30 vote, Edelstein, based on his statement, appeared to believe he had found legal loopholes that the Knesset adviser was unaware of.

While Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit behind closed doors has been telling confidantes that there is no legal basis for cancelling the elections, Yinon’s office said Wednesday that it was drafting a legal opinion on the matter, which would take several days to complete.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Amir Fuchs, cancelling elections is possible in theory due to the Knesset’s ability to change basic laws — Israel’s lesser substitute of a constitution.

However, the constitutional law expert said that according to his interpretation of the Basic Law: Knesset, the law does not allow for the cancellation of snap elections after they’ve been initiated.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon attends a Knesset committee meeting on June 6, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Fuchs argued that allowing the Likud measure “would create a scenario in which the majority can initiate elections by dissolving the Knesset when they identify that their position in the polls is strong, and if the day before elections they notice that they’re polling poorly, they can simply cancel those elections.”

While he acknowledged that there is no clause in the Basic Law: Knesset that explicitly says cancelling elections is forbidden, Fuchs pointed out that section 9a in the law stipulates that the Knesset has the right to delay elections in extenuating circumstances if there is a two-thirds majority that support the measure.

The clause was used in order to postpone elections by three months when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, just 24 days before Israelis were slated to head to the polls.

“Because the Basic Law does in fact stipulate the circumstance when it is possible to extend the term of the Knesset, we also are able to learn when it is not okay to do so,” Fuchs argued. “Even if it is not written explicitly, it’s pretty obvious.”

Ulterior motives

Gantz all but put the prospect to bed on Wednesday afternoon when he announced at a press conference that Blue and White would only consider legal measures to cancel the elections in order to form a unity government with Likud if Netanyahu steps aside — a prospect that nobody believes is realistic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in the Knesset, with Labor party leader Avi Gabbay just behind him, in the course of the Knesset vote to disperse and hold new elections, late on May 29, 2019 (Ynet screenshot)

And according to one Likud official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Netanyahu might not even truly be seeking to cancel the elections: rather, his goal is to shift the blame to Blue and White for the second round of elections that will cost the tax payers billions of shekels.

“Right now, polls we’ve conducted indicate that a plurality of Israelis blame Likud for these new elections. If we can show the public that we truly did everything in our power to avoid them but came up short because Blue and White’s refusal to cooperate, that could change the narrative in our favor,” the official said.

Moreover, he said surveys suggest that if elections were held today, Likud would lose seats at the expense of Yisrael Beytenu and would therefore lose its ability to form a right-wing coalition without Liberman’s party.

“We didn’t really want elections before. One can’t honestly have expected us to have allowed Gantz to become prime minister. We did what was necessary to allow Netanyahu to continue serving and that is what we are doing now because that is what the public wants,” the official asserted.

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