Coalition whip scraps disciplinary moves against Likud MKs, cites need for unity

Coalition whip scraps disciplinary moves against Likud MKs, cites need for unity

As elections loom, Miki Zohar eases sanctions on party ministers, lawmakers who were punished for skipping Knesset votes

Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during a meeting at the Knesset, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during a meeting at the Knesset, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Invoking the need for party unity, coalition whip MK Miki Zohar has lifted sanctions placed on some of his Likud party’s ministers and Knesset members as a punishment for missing parliamentary votes.

The development came amid growing speculation that Israel is headed for a new round of elections, which would be the fourth within two years, due to the escalating political crisis over the passage of the state budget.

In a letter to the affected ministers and MKs, Zohar wrote that over the past week he had reviewed the faction and “to my delight, I saw the party operating and efficient work [being done].”

“This is the time for unity in our movement,” he wrote. “I am sure that the MKs and ministers understand the magnitude of the responsibility and the importance of party discipline and I hope that we will not need to deal with similar absences in the future.”

Last month, Zohar disciplined five Likud ministers and five Knesset members for missing plenum votes, including on a bill to bar psychotherapists from performing gay conversion therapy. That bill, which passed its initial reading, was backed by government party Blue and White, but opposed by Likud and the coalition’s Shas and United Torah Judaism, ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu himself was among the 21 Likud lawmakers who were not present for the vote. The fight over that legislation was part of a growing fissure between the coalition’s Blue and White and Likud.

The sanctions announced by Zohar included barring MKs from submitting bills until the end of the current Knesset session and requiring ministers to do duty as government representatives during plenum sessions.

The action drew sharp responses from some of the punished lawmakers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/pool/Flash90

In the wake of the disciplinary measures, the Ynet news site reported that 12 Likud MKs — a third of the party’s lawmakers in the Knesset — signed a request to remove Zohar as coalition chairman. Such a move would require support from 19 Likud MKs, but was apparently put on ice, thanks to opposition by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The sanctions came on the heels of several feuds within Likud, among them a public spat between Zohar and Finance Minister Israel Katz.

One of those sanctioned last month was Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton who Zohar had informed would be removed from her position as chair of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee after she butted heads with Netanyahu by reversing a number of cabinet decisions to restrict businesses during the pandemic, including the closures of restaurants, gyms and pools. Last week, the Ynet website quoted Zohar as saying he was backing down and instead looking for a compromise rather ousting her, again citing party unity as the motive.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

The divide between Netanyahu’s Likud party and its unity coalition partner Blue and White, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz appeared to be rapidly growing Sunday over their budget disagreement.

The government has until August 25 to approve a budget or it will automatically dissolve. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to pass a budget through 2021 as part of the coalition deal between their parties, but the premier is now calling for a budget that only covers the rest of 2020, citing the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Gantz, however, is insisting on a budget that runs through next year.

While Netanyahu has to hand over the premiership to Gantz if he calls new elections before the Blue and White chief takes over as prime minister in November 2021, the coalition deal made an exception for a failure to pass a budget, leading to speculation the Likud leader was forcing the budget crisis to avoid having to leave office.

Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to form a unity government with a rotation of the premiership in May, ending 500 days of political deadlock after three inconclusive elections.

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