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President seen as very likely to grant request for more time

‘It’s deception’: Sa’ar urges Herzog to let Netanyahu’s mandate expire

Outgoing justice minister claims incoming government has been finalized, prospective PM only seeking extension in order to pass ‘problematic’ legislation

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly gearing up to request an extension of his four-week mandate to form a government, which expires at midnight between December 11 and 12, a member of the outgoing coalition urged President Isaac Herzog on Tuesday to say no.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said any request to extend the mandate at this point would be “deception,” claiming that Netanyahu had already finished assembling his coalition and was delaying the announcement only in order to first pass a series of “problematic laws” that his allies insist on.

Netanyahu’s Likud party announced Monday that its bloc of allied parties — which holds a majority of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset — had gathered the 61 signatures needed to force a vote on replacing the parliament speaker even before the next government is sworn in. Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said he will convene the plenum for that vote next Monday, after Netanyahu’s mandate would expire in the absence of an extension.

The election of a new speaker, from the Netanyahu-led bloc, is an essential prerequisite if the planned right-religious coalition is to take office, since several of Netanyahu’s intended ministerial appointments and commitments to incoming coalition parties require changes to existing legislation, and the speaker exerts considerable control over the Knesset’s legislative agenda.

The controversial legislative blitz would include passing an amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to enable Shas party leader Aryeh Deri to be sworn in as a minister alongside the rest of the incoming government despite having been handed a suspended sentence for tax fraud earlier this year.

The attorney general has said that the Central Elections Committee should determine whether the current, vaguely worded law blocks a person who was given a suspended sentence from becoming a cabinet minister, but Netanyahu is planning to sidestep the issue entirely by changing the law. Deri, who served a prison sentence for bribery earlier in his career, is set to become minister of both health and the interior in the upcoming government, according to coalition agreements.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 13, 2022 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The planned law changes also reportedly include allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings with a simple, 61-strong majority. The override clause, among other concerns, could preempt any legal challenges to Deri’s ministerial appointment. Critics have warned that an override clause would severely disrupt the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature.

In a statement Tuesday, Sa’ar, of the National Unity party, said: “The submission of signatures by the parties in Netanyahu’s bloc to replace the Knesset speaker indicates that the assembling of the government has been completed. Netanyahu’s request to the president for extra days for that purpose is deception. The goal is to pass personal, problematic laws at the demand of his allies before the formation of the government.

“It is not for this purpose that the law grants the president the power to extend the deadline,” added Sa’ar, a right-wing former ally of Netanyahu who has become a bitter rival. “The president should deny Netanyahu’s request.”

However, the chance of Herzog refusing the request is seen as very slim, since there is no other prime-ministerial candidate, and since extensions have been given in the past in order to finalize the coalition agreements, and while the president has discretion in weighing the request, it is limited.

Netanyahu was last month given 28 days to form a government, after a majority among the newly elected Knesset members recommended him as prime minister. By law, the president can give him an extension of up to 14 more days.

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