Knesset meeting on lifting limits on ministers turns angry, sees walkout
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Knesset meeting on lifting limits on ministers turns angry, sees walkout

Netanyahu needs restrictions removed to offer more posts to coalition partners ahead of May 28 deadline; measure passed in 2013 as good-government reform has never been enforced

Ushers, at left, escort MK Mickey Levy (Blue and White) out of a Knesset committee debate on a bill to remove limits on the number of cabinet ministers that can be appointed by a government, May 21, 2019. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
Ushers, at left, escort MK Mickey Levy (Blue and White) out of a Knesset committee debate on a bill to remove limits on the number of cabinet ministers that can be appointed by a government, May 21, 2019. (Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

Amid a flurry of controversial legislation being advanced by the Likud party, a late-night committee hearing on Tuesday descended into shouting and saw an angry walkout of opposition lawmakers.

The meeting of the special parliamentary committee writing up a bill to remove the legal limits of the number of cabinet ministers turned acrimonious when its chairman, Likud’s MK Miki Zohar, set a time limit on opposition lawmakers’ arguments against the bill.

Opponents of the Likud bid to abolish the cap on the cabinet at 19 ministers, including the prime minister, and four deputy ministers — passed as an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government in 2013 — had come to the late-night committee meeting with some 370 amendments and “reservations” they wanted to raise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs the bill passed in the coming days to give him greater leeway to create extra ministries and other senior posts that he can hand to prospective coalition partners. He faces a May 28 deadline to submit his new coalition for the required Knesset confidence vote.

While the general outlines of the next coalition are thought to be well known — it will almost certainly include the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, Kulanu, the Union of Right-Wing Parties and Yisrael Beytenu — not one of those partners has yet signed a coalition agreement with Likud as of Wednesday morning.

Knesset House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar (Likud) leads a discussion on canceling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In debates on the measure earlier this week, Finance Ministry budgets officials warned that the cost of satisfying coalition demands for as many as eight new ministries could come to an annual added expenditure of some half a billion shekels — for ministries that all parties agreed would either do very little or would replicate the work of other agencies.

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid, a longtime opponent of the tendency of prime ministers to enlarge their cabinets, slammed the Netanyahu government’s Sunday vote in support of the bill as “corruption.”

“The first item on the government’s agenda today: canceling the limit on the number of ministers and deputy ministers,” he wrote on social media after the cabinet vote. “That’s the first item! That’s their priority, their jobs, their honorifics, the political bribes they can take in exchange for Netanyahu’s get-out-of-jail-free card. Political bribery at the public’s expense.”

It was Lapid’s Yesh Atid party that had demanded the change in law in 2013 as a condition for joining Netanyahu’s coalition at the time.

Likud lawmakers, meanwhile, slammed the opposition as “hypocrites,” and noted that the restrictions passed in 2013 had never actually gone into force.

As with most constitutional changes, the 2013 law only went into effect in the following Knesset, but the new government established after the 2015 election passed a one-time “temporary order” suspending its implementation for the duration of the 20th Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) is seen during a Knesset vote to revoke a law limiting the number of government ministers, on May 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The pressure this time around comes because Likud is prohibited from passing another such order.

Likud lawmakers have thus noted that the current law’s restrictions have never actually been in force — and that all governments since at least the 1980s, led by both left and right, have had more than 19 ministers.

At the late-Tuesday meeting of the special committee, which was established by a Knesset plenum vote on Sunday, Blue and White MK Karin Elharrar said the overall cost of the bill would be even higher than the Finance Ministry’s estimates, because the coalition planned to marry it to an expanded “Norwegian law” allowing MKs to resign their parliamentary seat temporarily while they served as cabinet ministers. They would then be replaced in the Knesset by the next person in line on their party slates.

That is, she said, “not only would there be new ministers in unnecessary ministries, but they’ll be doubling [the overall cost] by also having extra MKs.”

Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharrar leads a State Control Committee meeting on March 8, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At approximately 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Zohar said he would end the debate in time for lawmakers to leave before 1 a.m.

The statement sparked anger from Blue and White MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata and Mickey Levy, a former Jerusalem police chief.

Levy shouted at Zohar, “You’re trampling over our rights as MKs,” causing Zohar to order ushers to remove Levy by force from the meeting room. The rest of the opposition lawmakers then staged a walkout in protest.

Shortly after midnight, the lawmakers all returned and the debate resumed.

The bill is slated to be taken up again on Wednesday morning, with coalition leaders hoping to push it through its final plenum votes by Thursday or Sunday.

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