Knesset appears to kill bill that would bar Netanyahu from becoming premier

Knesset presidium refuses to add legislation banning person charged with serious offenses from becoming PM to measure dissolving Knesset and calling new elections

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, second-right, attends the Eli Horowitz Conference for Economy and Society, organized by Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on June 21, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, second-right, attends the Eli Horowitz Conference for Economy and Society, organized by Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on June 21, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A bill seeking to bar a lawmaker charged with a serious crime from becoming prime minister faces slim chances of being made law after the Knesset presidium refused to include the legislation alongside a bill to dissolve the Knesset.

The bill is being spearheaded by MK Yevgeny Soba of Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.

If passed, it would prevent Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently in court facing corruption charges, from forming a government.

Liberman and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin said separately Tuesday morning that they would aim to attach the bill to the coming vote on dissolving the Knesset, expected Wednesday.

The Knesset Presidium later denied a request to do so, meaning the bill will need to be submitted separately at a later date, though with the Knesset headed for dissolution, little time likely remains for such a measure.

Soba and Liberman’s spokespersons said that they are working to bring the bill to a vote as soon as possible, but are unsure if they will succeed.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announce the collapse of their coalition, at a joint appearance at the Knesset, June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The possibility of such legislation has been repeatedly floated since the current government came to power last year, and the issue was spearheaded by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, but it never had sufficient coalition support to pass. Critics claimed it targeted Netanyahu specifically.

If the bill does arrive in time for a vote in the current plenum, it is unlikely to pass, as renegade Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who controls the Knesset committee the bill would go through, would be likely to oppose it, Channel 12 reported Tuesday.

Orbach ended his membership of the coalition last week, reducing it to a minority, citing frustrations with “extremist, anti-Zionist elements” such as Arab MKs Mazen Ghanaim (Ra’am) and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz) of pulling the coalition “in problematic directions” and “holding it hostage.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced Monday that they would ask the Knesset to dissolve itself and trigger fresh elections because their coalition was unable to function. Though the disbanding vote was initially planned for next week, on Tuesday it was moved up for a preliminary reading on Wednesday. This is to prevent opposition parties from attempting a complicated, but feasible maneuver, of installing an alternative government with the help of renegade coalition members.

Speaking at an economics conference in Jerusalem, Liberman said that the coalition was looking at the possibility of pushing the bill forward.

Liberman blamed the collapse of the government and the likely new elections on Netanyahu, who is on trial for three graft cases including a charge of bribery.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu hails the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“These elections are the result of the intrigues, lies, and harassment of one man, and his name is Benjamin Netanyahu,” Liberman said. “The main goal is to prevent him from returning to power.”

Liberman said it was Netanyahu who had prevented a stable outcome from the previous four elections held over the past three years.

“It would be possible [to form a lasting government] if not for one man that is concerned only about himself,” Liberman said, according to a Walla news report.

Throughout recent election cycles several parties, including Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, vowed to not sit under Netanyahu in a government. With no bloc achieving a stable majority, the country was forced into a series of elections until Bennett and Lapid last year put together his diverse eight-party coalition of left, center, and right parties along with Ra’am, an Islamist movement.

Elkin, of Sa’ar’s New Hope party, told Kan news he hoped the coalition will try to bring the bill to a vote before the Knesset is disbanded. He said his party backs the bill and that it had not been passed so far because Bennett’s Yamina party had vetoed it.

“It could be that there will be efforts to pass it now, I don’t know if it is too late,” Elkin said.

Earlier this week, Channel 12 news reported that Bennett opposed trying to pass the bill because he was worried it might push Yamina party MK Nir Orbach, who had already declared he was leaving the coalition with the opposition, to go further and support an opposition bill to disperse the Knesset.

It was not clear whether Bennett would support the bill now that the Knesset was dispersing anyway.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 12, 2022 (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/POOL)

As the political field adjusted to the reality of elections, expected in October, New Hope leader Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar vowed that he would not help Netanyahu return to power by joining with Likud in a coalition after the election.

Sa’ar, a former Likud member who broke away before the last elections to form his party with the declared intention of ousting Netanyahu, told Army Radio his party’s lawmakers were united behind him and had not been persuaded to defect to the opposition, despite the pressures on them to do so.

He remained confident they would not make a move now, even though their political futures were now uncertain, as polls show New Hope hovering around the threshold for entry into the Knesset.

“None of them will make a mistake of being seduced or pressured,” Sa’ar said.

Elkin, also of New Hope, backed up his party leader, telling Channel 12 News “we won’t be the 61st finger for Netanyahu.”

Minister of Housing and Construction Ze’ev Elkin attends a conference in Modi’in, December 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“We weren’t tempted and we did not break our word to the voter, not at the stage of setting up the government and not now,” Elkin said. “It is impossible to go back to a situation when the whole country is enslaved to one person.”

“We are in fact the finger in the dike” holding back Netanyahu’s return, Elkin said.

Elkin also clarified that his party has no intention of running on a joint ticket with Bennett’s Yamina.

“New Hope is campaigning alone for these elections,” he said.

Likud MK David Bitan shrugged off Elkin’s remarks, telling Channel 12 “with all due respect we don’t want to sit with him [Elkin].”

Minister of Health and head of the left-wing Meretz party Nitzan Horowitz leads a Meretz faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told Army Radio that his dovish Meretz party should not be blamed for the collapse of the government, even though its MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi had voted with the opposition to help defeat a key bill on West Bank settlements, prompting right-wing Orbach to quit the coalition.

Meretz, Horowitz said, “is not guilty of breaking apart the government, those who pushed… were a number of MKs from Yamina who were not able to bear cooperation with us and not with the Arabs in the government.”

Among the opposition parties, the leader of the majority Arab-member Joint List MK Ayman Odeh told the Army Radio that he was keeping an open mind about cooperating with Ra’am, an Islamist party that is part of the coalition.

“We don’t disqualify Ra’am,” he said, but attacked its party leader MK Mansour Abbas as having “sold himself to anyone and everyone… and just wants to be in the coalition.”

Odeh referred to negotiations after the last election between Likud and Abbas that, had they succeeded, might have seen the Islamist party join a coalition with the hard-right Religious Zionism party. At the time, Religious Zionism refused to partner with Ra’am, apparently scuppering the process.

Following the Knesset’s dissolution, Lapid is slated to become caretaker prime minister until a new government is sworn in, as per the original coalition agreement. Bennett is expected to become alternate prime minister, a post that Lapid currently holds, and will also be responsible for the “Iran portfolio,” Hebrew media reports said.

Given legal and holiday constraints, new elections are expected at the end of October.

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