Coalition backs bill to limit president’s power, block ‘coup’ against Netanyahu

Kulanu, Jewish Home parties said to tell Likud they will support legislation if the ruling party agrees to call early elections

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial service marking 23 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on October 21, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
President Reuven Rivlin (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial service marking 23 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on October 21, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Coalition heads agreed Sunday to advance a bill that would limit the powers of the president in deciding whom to task with forming a government after elections, a proposal seen as an attempt to prevent a potential “coup” within the ruling Likud party against its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The heads of coalition parties came to an agreement in their weekly meeting to support the bill in its preliminary Knesset reading, allowing further discussions to be held on the government’s position, according to a Likud party spokesperson.

The decision comes after an Israel Radio report said coalition parties Kulanu and Jewish Home had told Likud that they would vote in favor of the legislation if the ruling party then agreed to call early elections.

Netanyahu told Likud ministers earlier Sunday that there were “loopholes in the current law that needed to be fixed.”

The bill, which comes in the form of an amendment to a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would ensure that only the leader of each elected political party has the right to form a government and not any other figure on the parties’ lists.

The bill was proposed by coalition chair David Amsalem (Likud) due to claims that President Reuven Rivlin was looking at the possibility of asking Gideon Sa’ar, a potential challenger to Netanyahu in the next elections, to form a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-education minister Gideon Sa’ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Sa’ar was a rising star in Likud until he took a break from politics in 2014. Analysts consider him a top contender for the premiership in a post-Netanyahu era, and he continues to enjoy high popularity among Likud activists. Sa’ar has expressed the intention of running for the leadership, not only of Likud, but of the country.

According to current law, after elections, the president consults with the heads of all factions before asking the party leader deemed to have the best chance of forming a government to begin negotiations with potential coalition partners. The leader tasked with forming a government is generally the one who receives the most recommendations from other parties, and is usually — but not necessarily — the head of the party that has won the largest number of seats.

Rumors of the purported planned “coup” by Sa’ar were reportedly the reason Netanyahu has been delaying a decision on bringing forward the 2019 elections.

According to a report in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper in October, the prime minister had recently decided to dissolve the Knesset during the first few days of its winter session, but then received word from associates and officials within the Likud party that Rivlin would not task him with forming a new government after the elections, due to concerns relating to the criminal investigations into him.

The report said that leaders of other parties could also condition their participation in the government on it being led by someone other than Netanyahu.

After the report was published, Netanyahu publicly accused Sa’ar of plotting to replace him, calling the alleged plan the “conspiracy of the century.”

According to the report, Rivlin was mulling the possibility of tasking someone other than Netanyahu with forming the government — another MK within Likud, if the party wins resoundingly, or a lawmaker from another party, if the margin of victory is narrower — in light of the ongoing corruption investigations against the prime minister.

Since becoming president in 2015, Rivlin has publicly differed with Netanyahu on a number of hot-button issues, though he has refrained from directly attacking the prime minister. The president has also been outspoken in defending various institutions from attacks by Netanyahu and his allies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and President Reuven Rivlin attend a ceremony awarding outstanding soldiers as part of Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebrations, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, April 19, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rivlin dismissed the coup report claim as “paranoia,” while Sa’ar called it a “ridiculous conspiracy theory.”

On Sunday, meeting Likud ministers, Netanyahu said he has since understood that Rivlin planned to entrust the person with the largest number of recommendations to form a government, regardless of other factors.

In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister after opposition leader Tzipi Livni was unable to form a coalition, despite her Kadima Party winning the most seats.

Police have recommended indicting Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, and lawmakers close to him have launched repeated attacks on the press and police, proposing various pieces of legislation to limit their ability to report on or investigate public figures, respectively.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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