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Knesset legal adviser backs decision to nix vote to probe submarine affair

Sagit Afik says Speaker Yariv Levin acted properly and that revote knocking down proposal can stand; measure’s sponsor says she’ll file High Court petition Thursday

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The Knesset acting legal adviser said Wednesday that Speaker Yariv Levin acted properly in nixing a plenum vote to establish a commission of inquiry into a corruption case in which several of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s  associates have been embroiled.

The decision by Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, to cancel the vote on a technicality was met with vocal protests from opposition lawmakers, some of whom said they would appeal to the High Court of Justice. The proposal was voted down on a second vote.

However, legal adviser Sagit Afik “determined that the voice vote [overturning the original vote] can stand,” a statement from the Knesset said.

In a legal opinion, Afik said she accepted the explanation that the plenum mistakenly held an electronic vote, instead of the requested voice vote, saying that video from the proceedings showed coalition whip Miki Zohar (Likud) approaching Deputy Speaker Mansour Abbas (Joint List), who was presiding at the session, before the initial voting began to request a voice vote, rather than the electronic vote that was held.

“However, there was a mask on [Zohar’s face] and he noted that MK Mansour Abbas likely did not hear what was said. MK Mansour Abbas confirmed to me what MK Miki Zohar said,” Afik wrote.

She said there was precedent for a coalition whip requesting a voice vote be held, after questions were raised over whether Zohar had the legal authority to do so. Opposition MKs have claimed, citing Knesset protocol, that a request for a voice vote must be made by a government minister.

Afik also said because there were other MKs present who intended to initially vote against the measure but said they did not, their participation in the revote did not effectively change the result.

“I believe that canceling a vote and holding another vote for the purpose of distorting or disguising the result of a vote is something that undermines the fundamental principles of the system and it could harm trust in the Knesset. But this isn’t the situation in front of us,” she said.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar pleads his case to Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas in the plenum on October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The high-stakes motion had not been expected to be approved after Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party said its members wouldn’t back it, but in a surprise turn of events it was passed 25-23.

The Knesset’s electronic display showing a 25-23 vote in favor of establishing an inquiry into the so-called submarine scandal on October 21, 2020 — a vote that was canceled by the Knesset speaker. (Channel 12 screenshot)

During the repeat vote, some opposition party members chanted “shame” while others left the plenum in protest. On the revote, 44 MKs voted against the motion with no votes in favor of it.

Responding to Afik’s legal opinion, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, who was behind the proposal for a probe of the submarine affair, called the decision “scandalous” and said she would file an appeal with the High Court on Thursday morning.

“The vote was legal and conducted in accordance with the Knesset Rules of Procedure,” she said in a statement.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid-Telem party backed the motion, said the government’s behavior voided the Knesset’s role in Israeli democracy.

“I’ve been a member of Knesset for eight years. Never has a vote been canceled after the vote. I’ve spoken to the longest-serving members of this house; none of them remember anything like this,” Lapid said in a televised statement. “If you can cancel votes, you can shut down the Knesset. It isn’t needed anymore.”

Opposition MKs express anger after Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Lapid called the Knesset “just a theater so that Netanyahu can go around the world and claim Israel is still a democracy.”

He claimed the coalition wanted to block the inquiry into the corruption scandal because if it went ahead Netanyahu would be implicated.

“He is neck-deep in this scandal. That’s why they are willing to do everything to prevent an investigation,” Lapid said.

The commission was to look into the so-called Case 3000, a corruption probe nicknamed “the submarine affair” that revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. The scandal has embroiled several close associates of Netanyahu, as well as high ranking military officials, but not the premier himself.

Netanyahu’s political opponents have accused the premier of a possible conflict of interest in the Thyssenkrupp affair and have alleged he may have benefited financially from it. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party has said the accusations are politically motivated.

The state prosecution told the High Court of Justice on Sunday that it believes there is no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu over the submarine case.

Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he would not reassess Netanyahu’s role in the affair, even after a former Defense Ministry director’s affidavit, apparently tying Netanyahu to the case, was leaked.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg after Knesset speaker nullifies a vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The prime minister is currently on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims to be victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, state prosecutors under Mandelblit’s authority, left-wing opposition and the media.

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