Former IDF chief Ashkenazi takes helm of Knesset’s powerful defense committee

Former IDF chief Ashkenazi takes helm of Knesset’s powerful defense committee

Lawmakers face ‘many challenges in the security realm,’ says new chairman; House Committee, which could play deciding role on Netanyahu immunity, handed to Likud

Gabi Ashkenazi, one of the leaders of the Blue and White political alliance, speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Gabi Ashkenazi, one of the leaders of the Blue and White political alliance, speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White lawmaker Gabi Ashkenazi, a former army chief of staff, took the helm of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Thursday after the formal swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset.

Ashkenazi replaced Likud MK Avi Dichter, himself a former head of the Shin Bet security service, who chaired the powerful oversight body of Israel’s security agencies for the past 3.5 years.

The Knesset’s most vital committees, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, or FADC, the House Committee and the Finance Committee that approves the state budget, must be staffed on a permanent basis, and hold meetings even in the run-up to or immediately after elections to approve or oversee the most vital functions of government.

“It’s no accident that this committee is required to be staffed on a continuous basis, even in these difficult times and under an interim government,” Ashkenazi said Thursday after his appointment as chairman.

Even in the past four months, during the ill-fated and short-lived 21st Knesset elected in April and disbanded in June — when almost nothing happened in the legislature — the FADC “held substantive professional discussions on any subject we needed to deal with,” he said.

“This is a period characterized by many challenges in the security realm, some known to all and some that are only discussed behind closed doors,” he added.

Under Knesset rules, the new assignments announced Thursday are on an interim basis until the newly elected factions in the 22nd Knesset successfully negotiate a coalition agreement.

The plenum hall of the Knesset during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In exchange for Blue and White taking control of the FADC, Likud obtained the chairmanship of the House Committee, the key body that could determine whether to grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immunity, if such a legislative push is made as he faces possible indictments in three corruption investigations.

The Finance Committee, meanwhile, will remain in the hands of United Torah Judaism’s MK Moshe Gafni, who has led it for much of the past decade.

Blue and White MK Elazar Stern, an FADC member and a retired Israel Defense Forces major general, praised outgoing chairman Dichter for shying away from politics in his handling of the committee’s work.

“We never detected any [motive] in Avi Dichter’s management of the committee except concern for national security. No politics, no partisanship, just responsibility and depth. You instilled confidence in the committee’s duties and I’m certain Gabi will continue in that direction,” Stern said.

Closing the committee’s first meeting under his gavel, Ashkenazi thanked the committee members, saying, “A great deal was said today about responsibility and commitment. I’m certain these will all be tested sooner than we think.”

Five of Blue and White’s six committee members were senior army officers, including three chiefs of staff (Ashkenazi, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon) and two retired major generals (Stern and Orna Barbivai). The sixth member is party No. 2 Yair Lapid.

Likud’s appointees are Dichter, Gideon Sa’ar, Yoav Kisch (a former fighter pilot), Sharren Haskel and Miki Zohar. Shas is represented by Yoav Ben-Tzur, United Torah Judaism by Israel Eichler; Yamina by Naftali Bennett; Yisrael Beytenu by former senior diplomat Eli Avidar; Labor-Gesher by former defense minister Amir Peretz, and the Democratic Camp by Yair Golan, a retired major general.

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