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Yisrael Beytenu official indicates party will give backing

Blue and White to push law barring indicted PM from serving

Unclear if initiative will be backed by all opposition parties, which combined have Knesset majority; also unclear if it’s technically possible during transitional government

Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)
Composite photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right. (Flash90)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious right-wing bloc of supporters all but guaranteed to have won fewer than half of the seats in the Knesset in Monday’s elections, the rival Blue and White party on Wednesday confirmed it was working on getting a majority to support a law that would prevent an indicted prime minister from serving, which would effectively oust the premier.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz proposed such a law after the September election, but it was struck down at the time by Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman. However, Liberman could support it this time, according to a senior source who has spoken with Liberman about the matter.

After more than 99 percent of the votes were tallied, Likud and its allies had 58 seats combined. The right-wing religious bloc supporting Netanyahu — consisting of Likud, Shas, UTJ and Yamina — thus fell short of the 61 seats needed to form a government, and its rivals seem certain to hold a majority in the next Knesset.

While the combination of the centrist Blue and White, the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu, the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz and the predominantly Arab Joint List — which together have a majority in the parliament — have virtually no chance of coming together to form a government, what they do have in common is opposition to Netanyahu’s continued rule.

Monday’s election was largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who will go on trial in two weeks for bribery, fraud and breach of trust but is thought to be seeking support for a legislative mechanism to grant him immunity.

A similar law that would have ousted a premier facing an indictment was supported by Netanyahu himself in 2008, when Ehud Olmert was facing corruption charges, Hebrew-language media reported. The law didn’t pass, but Olmert resigned before the charges were filed.

The law was also reportedly backed at the time by members of Netanyahu’s current bloc, including United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman and the prime minister’s Likud primary challenger last year, MK Gideon Sa’ar.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the plan to pass a law barring a person facing criminal charges from serving as prime minister was technically possible to implement, with some observers arguing that private, non-governmental draft law cannot be filed during a transitional government.

Blue and White is apparently convinced it is possible, and that it isn’t different from Likud proposing a law to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, which was voted on and passed.

Gantz reportedly plans to file the draft law immediately after the new Knesset is sworn in on March 16.

Apart from Blue and White, senior members of Labor-Gesher-Meretz and the Joint List on Wednesday voiced support for the law, while Yisrael Beytenu officially kept mum.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at a conference at the Israeli Institute for Democracy, in Jerusalem, on February 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But a senior Yisrael Beytenu official familiar with internal deliberations told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, that Liberman and his party would support the law.

“Liberman didn’t support this law until now,” the source said on condition of anonymity. “Netanyahu hadn’t been indicted and he didn’t want to put the cart before the horse like Blue and White and get embarrassed later, and he didn’t want legislation that would intervene in the voters’ choice.

“Now the situation is different, there is an indictment — and there is an urgent need to prevent Netanyahu from continuing to dissolve the Knesset again and again and plunge Israel into fourth elections.”

The official expressed hope that the law would make a unity government possible, since Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu say they are willing to join politically with Likud, but not with Netanyahu at its head.

“Since Blue and White, Labor and the Joint List will support this law, it has 62 backers,” he concluded. “Checkmate.”

Yisrael Beytenu refused to officially comment on the report.

The heads of the Gesher, Labor and Meretz party, Orly Levy, Amir Peretz and Nitzan Horowitz at the party headquarters on elections night, in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Labor-Gesher-Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz tweeted Wednesday that the law was “politically and morally justified and reflects the will of most voters.” He added: “Let’s go for it with everything we’ve got.”

His party member Itzik Shmuli said he was on board, adding: “It’s time for our political camp to also seek decisive victory.”

While the Joint List hasn’t officially commented on the matter, its MK Ahmad Tibi told 103FM Radio Wednesday that “I estimate that [supporting it] will be our direction.”

Members of Netanyahu’s bloc reacted with outrage to the initiative.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett on Twitter called it “an anti-democratic move, spitting in the face of half the country.” He added: “Two days ago there were elections, and already they are trying to bypass the people’s will through illegitimate means.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri said such a law would be a “disgrace” and break the “rules of the political game.” He lambasted Blue and White for being “willing to sacrifice the benefit of the country and the people’s unity on the altar of personal hate toward Netanyahu.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev, of Likud, accused Gantz of “succumbing to Tibi’s pressure” and starting an “attempted coup.”

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