Lawmakers advance bill to disperse Knesset, call elections for March

Lawmakers advance bill to disperse Knesset, call elections for March

MKs green-light elections for March 2 ahead of final two readings; debate likely to extend past midnight; Knesset allowed to legislate until president, Knesset speaker talk

The plenum hall of the Israeli parliament on the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 03, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The plenum hall of the Israeli parliament on the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 03, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved in its first reading a bill to disperse the Knesset and call elections for March 2, bringing Israel a step closer to its third national vote in under a year.

The proposal received the support of 91 Knesset lawmakers, with none opposed. Two more votes in the full parliamentary chamber are needed for the bill to become law.

Barring an unexpected announcement of a coalition breakthrough, the bill is expected to pass into law late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, marking an ignominious end to the short-lived 22nd Knesset and what may be remembered as the most dysfunctional year in Israeli political history.

Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, leaders of the two-largest parties, failed to form a government following the September elections, and talks on a unity arrangement broke down with the sides trading blame. Lawmakers in late May had voted to dissolve the Knesset after Netanyahu was unable to form a majority coalition in the wake of elections in April.

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White party chief, Benny Gantz, right, speaking separately at a media conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Hadash Parush/Flash90)

The Knesset Arrangements Committee on Wednesday morning approved a special expedited legislative process for the dissolution bill, allowing lawmakers to hold the four required plenum votes and committee amendments process in a single day. Shortly afterward, the bill passed in its preliminary reading in the plenum.

The bill changes the date of the next election. Election law requires that the election be held 90 days after the December 11 deadline for forming a government has passed, which falls on March 10. But that day is the Jewish holiday of Purim, so the new bill puts the vote for the 23rd Knesset just over a week earlier, on March 2.

Knesset members have until midnight to propose a prime ministerial candidate to President Reuven Rivlin. But MKs can pass the law dissolve parliament until the president informs the Knesset speaker that coalition efforts have failed, which could happen any time Thursday morning.

After a report that Netanyahu was mulling skipping the final readings of the vote, Gantz said his party would pull support, which would have meant the election date reverting to March 10. But Likud MK Miki Zohar later said Netanyahu would attend the Knesset vote at some stage.

The bill allocates some NIS 62 million to parties in campaign financing that they would lose if Blue and White backs out.

Blue and White MKs Avi Nissenkorn (L) and Gabi Ashkenazi during a faction meeting at the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Speaking at a lengthy plenary debate before the first reading of the bill to disperse the Knesset, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid warned that the likely coming election campaigns would be “a festival of hate and violence and disgrace.”

“Make sure you keep your kids away from the TV for the next three months, so they won’t see what the elected officials are saying,” he said.“What used to be a celebration of democracy has become a moment of shame for this building.”

“There are only three reasons for this election – bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” he added, referring to the criminal charges facing Netanyahu.

The dissolution bill was drafted and presented in the Knesset Tuesday by Blue and White lawmakers Avi Nissenkorn, Meir Cohen and Tzvi Hauser, together with Likud MKs Miki Zohar and Shlomo Karai. It is expected to go down as the only piece of legislation passed by the 22nd Knesset.

“These are not the pieces of legislation I had hoped to submit as a public representative, and I still hope that we can pull them tomorrow before midnight and announce the establishment of a broad unity government,” Nissenkorn, who had also cosponsored legislation to dissolve the 21st Knesset, just two months into his first term as an MK, said on Tuesday.

Following the filing of the bill, Blue and White chief Gantz said Tuesday there was still time to avoid “costly and unnecessary” elections. He said his party was “making every effort” to form a government without giving up its principles.

He also called on Netanyahu to announce he would not seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the corruption cases against him, a key demand by Blue and White for entering a Netanyahu-led government.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee discussion at the Knesset, December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“As you promised before the previous election, do not hide behind parliamentary immunity, and go defend your innocence in court,” Gantz said in a video statement. “You have the full right to defend yourself but you must not make the Knesset a safe haven for criminals.”

“Do this so that we can find a solution and form a government,” Gantz added.

Netanyahu responded by accusing Gantz of “spin.”

On Wednesday, Likud sources reportedly told Hebrew media that Netanyahu was mulling announcing he would drop the immunity bid, as a way to pin the blame for failing to forge a unity deal on his rival. But this was not confirmed and there was no such announcement.

The April 2019 election made history when by the end of May it became the first-ever Israeli election that failed to produce a government, though it voted to dissolve before Gantz could be given a chance at forming one.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz then failed to form a coalition in the wake of the next vote in September.

The Yisrael Beytenu party, a potential kingmaker which could have potentially helped either side form a narrow government, said it would only back a unity government.

A Tuesday poll showed Blue and White increasing its lead over Likud, expanding its current one-seat advantage to a four-seat lead — 37 seats to Likud’s 33 in the 120-member Knesset. Meanwhile, the rightist-Haredi bloc of parties backing Netanyahu is set to fall by three seats, according to the Channel 13 poll, from the current 55 total to 52.

The poll predicted Likud falling even further if the party drops the scandal-laden Netanyahu in favor of his main challenger, MK Gideon Sa’ar.

When asked who they blamed for the expected third election, 41 percent of respondents blamed Netanyahu, followed by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at 26%, and Gantz at a mere 5%. Twenty-three percent said “everyone is equally responsible.”

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