Knesset set to approve coalition deal, with government to be sworn in May 13

Final votes on unity agreement to be held Thursday after last-minute amendments made; court rejects petitions against deal, likely ending threat of 4th election

The plenum hall of the Knesset during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: The plenum hall of the Knesset during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Knesset was set to approve a coalition deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally Benny Gantz on Thursday after the High Court of Justice said that, for now, it had no objections to the agreement. When approved, the new government is to be sworn in on May 13, ending more than a year of political limbo.

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 have 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 out 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.

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 Benny Gantz to extend their deal from the currently agreed 3 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 was aimed at delaying the legislative process by forcing Likud and Blue and White to send the law back to the committee, rather than introcuding the change via a last minute revision to be voted in the plenary.

The opposition had initially filed over 9000 revisions but had agreed to limit voting in the plenary to just 1000. Returning the bill to committee allowed the opposition to add further revision proposals.

The committee set the new plenum vote on the bill for Thursday morning.

The bills have the numbers to pass through the plenum without difficulty. However, timing is crucial.

Thursday is the final day for 61 MKs to recommend a candidate to President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government. If they fail to do so by midnight, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and a fourth election be called.

However, due to deep distrust in Netanyahu, Blue and White is loath to recommend him so long as the legislation has not been passed in full.

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)

With a presidential mandate, Netanyahu would have two weeks to finalize his coalition, including ongoing haggling over cabinet jobs.

Shortly before the ruling, Likud and Blue and White announced that the new government would be sworn in on May 13 — next Wednesday.

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 alliance, 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.

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

Likud and Blue and White on Tuesday informed the court they would adjust some of the provisions of the deal that caused judicial concern.

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.

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