Knesset rescinds ability of PM to declare war without cabinet approval

Amendment canceling clause says any decision to launch major military operation should be ‘adopted by as wide a panel as possible’

View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)
View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)

The Knesset on Tuesday rescinded legislation which gave the prime minister the authority to declare war upon consulting only the defense minister and not via a full cabinet vote.

The cancellation of the clause passed its second and third readings with 77 MKs in favor and 16 against.

The vote came amid heightened tensions on the border between Israel and Gaza, with many concerned that the recent uptick in violence could lead to a war.

The Knesset passed legislation in April that included a controversial clause allowing the prime minister and defense minister to declare war or order a major military operation likely to lead to war, without requiring a full cabinet vote.

Opposition MKs said at the time that the language of the law effectively gave free rein to the prime minister by removing all oversight. Even some political hawks were troubled by the legislation.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah speaks during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on November 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Ofer Shelah of the Yesh Atid party hailed Tuesday’s vote, saying that it was “inconceivable that a decision to go to war could be in the hands of one person, without consultation with cabinet members.”

Shelah added that if the amendment had not been approved, there would have “undoubtedly been a commission of inquiry in the future.”

According to the now-canceled clause, in “extreme circumstances,” military operations could be authorized by the prime minister and defense minister alone and will not require a vote by cabinet ministers. The law did not specify exactly what those circumstances may be, or who would determine them, saying only that it would apply “if the issue is necessary due to urgency.”

The cabinet reportedly accepted that the legislation was too extreme and far-reaching, following criticism and concerns it may be struck down by the High Court.

“It is appropriate that a decision of the Ministerial Committee regarding starting a war or taking significant military action that may at a high level of certainty lead to war be adopted by as wide a panel as possible,” the amendment rescinding the clause said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some eight years ago, Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak instructed the chief of staff and head of the Mossad intelligence service to put the army into a state of readiness, only to be told by the latter two that the specified activity was illegal because it had not been properly approved and could lead to war.

There have, however, been numerous occasions where decisions of a similar nature have been taken by the security cabinet, a smaller forum of ministers tasked with forming policy regarding war and peace, or other smaller forums of ministers.

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