As top court watches, MKs launch legislative blitz to cement coalition deal

Constitutional overhaul comes as justices mull whether to strike down parts of Likud-Blue and White agreement, which limits lawmaking and heads off future rulings against Netanyahu

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, who is interim Knesset speaker, speaks in the plenum hall of the Knesset on February 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, who is interim Knesset speaker, speaks in the plenum hall of the Knesset on February 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a marathon legislative Knesset session beginning Thursday, the Likud and Blue and White parties began introducing changes to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to anchor its unity government agreement in law and ensure various arrangements in the coalition pact can pass legal muster.

The votes come as the High Court of Justice begins to scrutinize whether the proposed coalition deal is legal.

Beginning Thursday, and with special Knesset plenary sessions lined up for next week as well, lawmakers began parliamentary debates to advance the bills, which are expected to pass with the votes of a majority of lawmakers.

The proposed changes to the Basic Laws on the government and Knesset and other laws would constrict parliamentary activity, allow for the appointments of more ministers and deputy ministers, and, most controversially, attempt to prevent any future High Court of Justice ruling booting Benjamin Netanyahu from the role of “alternate prime minister” due to his criminal charges.

As lawmakers move to cement the deal, Israel’s top court is weighing a petition filed against the unity agreement and has given the leaders of Likud and Blue and White until Sunday to respond to claims questioning its constitutionality.

Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut during a pilot to broadcast court sessions live, April 16, 2020. (Supreme Court, from video)

According to the coalition agreement, the government will serve for 36 months, with Netanyahu remaining prime minister for the first 18 months and then handing the position over to Gantz. This transfer of power will happen automatically, without requiring a separate vote or decision. Each man will be the other’s “alternate prime minister.” An official residence will be provided for the alternate prime minister.

Netanyahu’s trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges is set to begin next month. In addition to appraising the constitutionality of the unity deal, the High Court is currently considering a petition on whether it was lawful for Netanyahu to form a government due to the criminal charges against him. On Thursday, justices decided to consider both petitions together and said a decision would be made quickly.

Under the terms of the deal, if the High Court of Justice rules in the first six months of the coalition’s lifespan that Netanyahu cannot be prime minister because of the indictments against him, new elections would be called.

Also as part of the deal, which will be explicitly laid out in the Knesset bills, Netanyahu will not lose his position as alternate prime minister unless he is convicted and all appeals are exhausted. The agreement also prevents Gantz from firing him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Chief Justice of Supreme Court Esther Hayut at the memorial ceremony for the late President Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One of the proposed changes to the Basic Laws include a clause stipulating that for its first six months, the coalition will focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, and will not pass major legislation that does not relate to the crisis. It will also not make major appointments to key positions that require government approval, such as the attorney general and police commissioner. In the course of those six months, the sides will negotiate the platform for the coalition for the rest of its lifespan.

During the emergency period, which can be extended, both Netanyahu and Gantz will have a veto on legislative initiatives.

From July 1, 2020, however, Netanyahu will be allowed to have the government and/or the Knesset vote on annexing parts of the West Bank, on the basis of the Trump administration’s peace plan. Such a vote would be held “as quickly as possible,” the agreement states, with no delays at the committee stages. Although coalition members will be able to vote as they see fit, the pro-annexation camp in the Knesset is likely to enjoy a majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants a tree during an event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yeriho, in the Jordan Valley, February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Another proposed part of the deal would see changes to the so-called Norwegian Law, which will allow Blue and White to rearrange the order of candidates entering the Knesset when those tapped as ministers relinquish their parliamentary role — in order to allow for MKs from Gantz’s Israel Resilience party to replace them, rather than those of Yesh Atid or Telem under the current rules. Under the so-called Norwegian Law, when a minister steps down from the Knesset, the next person on the party’s list takes up the seat instead.

This was said to be among the issues the High Court of Justice was expected to take issue with, since the lists have long been locked and the lawmakers voted into office in that sequence.

The government will initially have 32 ministers, divided equally between the Netanyahu- and Gantz-led blocs.

After six months, when it is hoped the coronavirus crisis will be over, the government will swell to 36 ministers, again divided equally — making it the largest government in Israeli history. Each bloc will also be able to appoint up to eight deputy ministers, for a similarly unprecedented total of 16.

According to the Haaretz daily, the unity deal also effectively uproots the Knesset’s ability to pass “no confidence” votes, since both Netanyahu and Gantz will be forced under the deal not to form a government after a no-confidence vote is held, and a majority coalition is unlikely without them. Both Blue and White and Likud are also agreeing not to obstruct the passage of the state budget, it said, robbing the Knesset of once of its key levers of influence over the executive branch.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

A legal source told the paper it’s unlikely the parties could pass the legislation in the time allotted to form a government, which runs out in approximately a month, but a Blue and White official insisted it’s possible with sessions extending into the night and on days when the plenum does not usually convene (Sundays and Thursdays).

Gantz is the elected Knesset speaker and as such retains broad powers on when the plenary convenes and what bills are brought for a vote.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli on Wednesday night lodged a bill that would disqualify anyone facing criminal charges from forming a government. The private member bill is highly unlikely to be brought to a plenary vote under Gantz’s watch.

The emerging coalition is initially likely to number 72 MKs. (Netanyahu’s bloc comprises Likud with 36 MKs; Shas with 9, United Torah Judaism with 7, and Orly Levy-Abekasis’s 1, for a total of 53 MKs. It is not yet clear whether Yamina, with 6 MKs, will join the coalition. Gantz’s bloc comprises his Blue and White faction with 15, Derech Eretz’s Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, and Labor’s Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, for a total of 19 MKs.)

Shmuli on Thursday told Army Radio he opposes the proposed bills, though his votes are not critical for its passage.

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