Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said Monday that he will convene the plenum next Monday to choose his replacement, after presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc gathered enough signatures to force a vote.
The election of a new speaker, from the Netanyahu-led bloc, is an essential pre-condition for the planned right-religious coalition to take office, since several of Netanyahu’s intended ministerial appointments and commitments to incoming coalition parties require changes to existing legislation, and the Knesset speaker exerts considerable control over the Knesset’s legislative schedule.
In a statement, Levy said the request to select a new speaker was meant “to advance legislation that will allow people convicted [of crimes] and sentenced to conditional prison time to serve as ministers,” in reference to ultra-Orthodox Shas leader Aryeh Deri who is seeking to serve as a minister despite a tax fraud conviction.
“Despite the incredible pain in knowing that this is the intention of the emerging coalition, I will act with statesmanship and respect the will of the voter,” said Levy, a member of outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party.
Levy said the request had come from 64 Knesset members, representing all of Netanyahu’s bloc. A majority of 61 signatures in the 120-seat Knesset was required to force the vote.
Netanyahu’s Likud party had announced earlier that all the factions in his incoming coalition had endorsed replacing Levy with one of their own. The statement from Likud also cited “significant progress” in forming a government, without elaborating.
Levy called the request “unusual” because it came before the swearing-in of the next Knesset. Netanyahu and his partners had previously discussed appointing a temporary speaker but it wasn’t clear if that was still their plan.
It also remained unclear who Netanyahu and his allies will select as the new speaker, which will give them control of the Knesset even before the coalition they are working to assemble is sworn in.
The Knesset speaker is responsible for maintaining order during legislative sessions, determining the Knesset plenum’s agenda each week, putting resolutions to a vote and announcing the results.
With the appointment of a new Knesset speaker, the incoming coalition will likely seek to pass a bill, reportedly demanded by Deri, that would enable him to be sworn in as a minister alongside the rest of the incoming government despite having been handed a suspended sentence for tax fraud earlier this year.
The attorney general has said that the Central Elections Committee should determine whether the current, vaguely worded law blocks a person who was given a suspended sentence from becoming a cabinet minister.
In order to bypass the current law, Deri — who is set to become minister of health and the interior and who served out a prison term for corruption earlier in his political career — is said to be demanding immediate legislation to clarify that only persons sentenced to custodial terms, versus suspended ones, are blocked from becoming ministers.
In addition, the new coalition is expected to quickly push through a so-called override clause that would enable Knesset members to reenact legislation struck down by the High Court of Justice. Among other things, such a clause could preempt any legal challenges to Deri’s ministerial appointment. Critics have warned that an override clause would severely disrupt the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature.
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said earlier Monday it had finally given its support to the Likud-backed request to swap the speaker. UTJ had held back its seven seats from the 61 signatures required to press for the swap, in a negotiation tactic meant to better its hand in seeking roles in the next government.
Religious Zionism agreed to the move last week after tense coalition negotiations.
Earlier Monday, Deri reportedly walked out of coalition talks with Netanyahu and Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, marking the second time in a week that the Shas leader clashed with Netanyahu during talks.
UTJ and Deri’s Shas parties are still holding out as Netanyahu approaches his December 11 deadline to form a government, though he can ask for a two-week extension and is expected to do so.