Knesset okays full legislative package anchoring new unity coalition
Netanyahu set to get mandate from president

Knesset okays full legislative package anchoring new unity coalition

Bills amending Basic Laws to anchor Netanyahu-Gantz rotation deal easily pass through parliament; government to be sworn in next week after over a year of political deadlock

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)

The Knesset on Thursday passed into law the full legislative package required by the coalition deal between the Likud and Blue and White parties, paving the way for Benjamin Netanyahu to receive a majority of recommendations in parliament to form the next government.

As the legislation was passed, the Blue and White party began signing its MKs on a document recommending Netanyahu — an eventuality thought unthinkable little more than a month ago.

President Reuven Rivlin was expected to task Netanyahu with forming the next government later in the day. If a candidate does not get at least 61 recommendations by a Thursday midnight deadline, the country would be forced to go to a new election, the fourth in little over a year.

The power-sharing coalition deal between Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will see the two share the premiership over the emerging government’s term.

The sides have said the new government will be sworn in next Wednesday, ending a year of political deadlock.

The most important part of the legislative package, the premiership rotation bill which amends a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, was approved in its second and third readings by a margin of 72 to 36, with members of the religious right-wing Yamina party, which has indicated it might opt for the opposition, not showing up for the vote.

Also absent were Labor MK Merav Michaeli, who opposes her party entering the coalition, and some members of the right-wing opposition Yisrael Beytenu party including party leader Avigdor Liberman, a bitter rival of Netanyahu.

Prospective opposition leader Yair Lapir of Yesh Atid-Telem, once Gantz’s close ally, lambasted the new government, and Blue and White in particular. “Never have so few swindled so many voters,” he tweeted, in reference to the famous World War II quote by by British prime minister Winston Churchill.

A late-night amendment to legislation included a clause allowing Netanyahu and Gantz to extend the government’s three-year term by another year if they so choose. Under the deal, Netanyahu will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months, followed by Gantz.

The votes came after the High Court of Justice said that, for now, it had no objections to the coalition agreement. When approved, the new government is to be sworn in on May 13, ending more than a year of political limbo.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in the Knesset on May 7, 2020 (YouTube screenshot/Knesset channel)

Lawmakers had been expected to vote Wednesday night to approve the deal, but a maneuver by opposition lawmakers to torpedo the agreement saw it delayed until Thursday.

The alliance formed last month between the right-wing incumbent and his centrist challenger followed three inconclusive elections in less than a year, but both sides conditioned forming a government on a long list of controversial changes to existing laws, including anchoring a pre-approved prime ministerial rotation and freezing certain types of Knesset activity and senior appointments.

The deal was set to become a reality after the High Court of Justice on Wednesday evening unanimously rejected a series of petitions seeking both to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government due to the criminal charges against him and to block controversial clauses of the coalition deal itself.

In a decision handed down after 11 p.m. on Wednesday, the expanded panel of 11 judges ruled that there was no legal impediment to Netanyahu being tasked to form a government and retaining the premiership even with indictments being filed against him in three corruption cases, including bribery in one of them. His trial is set to start on May 24.

As regards the coalition deal, Chief Justice Esther Hayut called it “highly unusual” and said some of its elements “raise serious difficulties.” Among these, she cited clauses providing for a modified “Norwegian Law,” under which some ministers could give up their Knesset seats, and others on their parties’ lists would take their places in parliament — but not necessarily according to the order in which they ran in the election. Nonetheless, the court ruled that there was no reason to intervene “at this time,” a phrase that was seen as leaving the door open to future challenges to the legislation underpinning the agreement.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a second day of hearings on petitions against the coalition agreement between Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 3, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Hayut also noted that the court was not intervening in part because of responses received on Tuesday from Likud and Blue and White, which agreed to amend elements of the agreement that the court had criticized.

Under the coalition deal, the government was to be defined as an “emergency” body for its first six months, tasked exclusively with combating the coronavirus. Following questions about that clause’s legality, the parties said they would amend the deal to say coronavirus will be the priority through the first six months, but other issues can be also handled. They also said they would pause certain public appointments for only 100 days, instead of the originally planned six months.

The deal specifies that Netanyahu may press ahead from July 1 with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, including all of Israel’s settlements, even without Gantz’s support.

President Reuven Rivlin (C) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) at his official residence in Jerusalem on November 19, 2019. In the background is Likud coalition negotiator Ze’ev Elkin. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

As the plenum voted Wednesday night on hundreds of suggested opposition amendments to the coalition legislation, all set to be rejected, Likud and Blue and White began discussing possible changes to the bill to allow Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Gantz to extend their deal from the currently planned three years, should they so choose.

Learning of this, opposition parties suddenly pulled their more than 1,000 amendment requests in a bid to force an immediate vote. However, the coalition sent the law back to a special committee that would approve the necessary changes.

Yesh Atid-Telem MK Meir Cohen, who pulled all the amendments, said the move had been aimed at delaying the legislative process by forcing Likud and Blue and White to send the law back to the committee, rather than introducing the change via a last-minute revision to be voted on in the plenary.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020 (courtesy)

Under the three-year coalition deal signed April 20, Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for 18 months, with Gantz as his alternate, a new position in Israeli governance.

They will swap roles midway through the three-year deal, while cabinet positions will be split between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, as well as their respective allies.

The deal could offer Israel a rare period of political stability as it seeks to repair the economic damage wrought by the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 16,000 people in the country and caused some 240 deaths. Netanyahu and Gantz battled through three deadlocked elections — in April and September 2019, and March 2020 — before Gantz in late March said he was ready to partner Netanyahu in an emergency coalition that would battle the pandemic and safeguard Israeli democracy.

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