Compromise sought to avoid ouster of renegade Likud MK who upended virus rules

Coalition whip Miki Zohar reportedly sets up meeting between Yifat Shasha-Biton and Netanyahu in attempt to substitute less severe penalty

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

After coalition whip Miki Zohar last week informed the head of a parliamentary panel that she would be removed from her post after overturning the government’s coronavirus-related restrictions, a report said Sunday that a compromise was being sought to avoid her ouster.

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who has led the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee since June, butted heads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by reversing a number of cabinet decisions to restrict businesses during the pandemic, including the closures of restaurants, gyms and pools.

But Zohar was working behind the scenes on Sunday to smooth things over between Shasha-Biton and Netanyahu, the Ynet news site quoted Zohar as saying.

“There is a time for war and a time for peace,” Zohar said. “It is correct that I am trying to find a compromise between MK Shasha-Biton and the prime minister. Obviously, this is better than removing her.”

The report said Shasha-Biton was due to meet Monday with Netanyahu to discuss the matter. It added, without citing a source, that the ouster as committee chair would likely be replaced with a different sanction such as a ban on filing bills for a certain period of time.

Shasha-Biton will also be asked to reach agreements with the government before rejecting its measures, the report said.

Her ouster has yet to be formally approved by the Knesset House Committee.

MK Miki Zohar during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I wish to inform you that in light of your conduct and absence from obligatory votes in the plenum… it’s been decided to remove you from your post of Coronavirus Committee chairwoman,” Zohar wrote last week in a letter to Shasha-Biton.

Responding to Zohar at the time, Shasha-Biton said the decision to oust her was actually Netanyahu’s.

“I acted according to my conscience. The prime minister’s decision to fire me is meant to prevent serious deliberations, discourse, listening to the public, [and] other voices being heard,” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m also happy that I opened the committee to the public with transparency, seriousness and full attentiveness, and I pledge to continue to do so in the future in whatever position I’m in.”

Besides Shasha-Biton, Zohar last week disciplined several other Likud ministers and Knesset members for missing plenum votes, including on a bill last week to bar psychotherapists from performing gay conversion therapy.

That bill, which passed its initial reading, was backed by 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 weren’t present for the vote.

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 representative during plenum sessions.

MK Shlomo Karhi, who was among the lawmakers to be disciplined, lashed out at Zohar, who is a close ally of Netanyahu.

“Miki is acting in a false and manipulative manner,” Karhi wrote on Twitter. “He’s divisive, harms Likud and the prime minister and needs to go home now.”

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, similarly sanctioned, also took a shot at Zohar.

“When a small man casts a giant shadow it means the sun is setting. I hope you’ll act to fulfill your mission and unite the faction,” he wrote on Twitter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, on December 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zohar pushed backed on the criticism, saying he was doing his job of keeping the coalition together. He also appeared to acknowledge Netanyahu’s role in the decision to oust Shasha-Biton.

“In a joint consultation with the prime minister it was decided to impose sanctions on whoever violations [coalition] discipline exactly as every Israeli government has done in history. I’m sorry there are those who don’t how to accept criticism and instead engage in infighting,” Zohar wrote on Twitter.

He also received backing from Netanyahu.

“Without discipline Likud can’t govern, especially during the coronavirus crisis,” Netanyahu tweeted. “I ask all Likud members to show responsibility, pay heed to faction disciple and cease the unnecessary attacks within the faction.”

One of the ministers Zohar announced sanctions against was Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who on Monday resigned from the Knesset under the so-called Norwegian Law allowing ministers to give up their seats so another member of their party can take their place in parliament. It was not clear whether Zohar could enforce the sanctions against Ohana.

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.

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

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