Knesset speaker overturns vote after MKs approve inquiry into submarine scandal

Opposition lawmakers, watchdog vow to appeal decision at High Court after Levin holds second vote to nullify decision for parliamentary commission of inquiry

Opposition MKs express anger after Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies a vote calling for an inquiry into the submarines affair, October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)
Opposition MKs express anger after Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies a vote calling for an inquiry into the submarines affair, October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The Knesset plenum on Wednesday voted to form a parliamentary inquiry into a major corruption scandal that has previously ensnared several close associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the rare opposition victory was quickly nullified, quashing the probe.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, drew swift condemnation after he canceled the original vote on a technicality, enraging opposition members who accused him of politicizing his job.

The high-stakes motion had not been expected to be approved after Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party said its members wouldn’t back it, but in a surprise turn of events it was passed 25-23.

Levin, however, immediately nullified that result, saying that coalition whip Miki Zohar had demanded a voice vote rather than an electronic vote.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

He added that some MKs, including himself, hadn’t heard the announcement by Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas (Joint List) that voting had begun.

Levin and Abbas later put out a joint statement defending the move. “Abbas did not hear the first request [from Zohar] for a roll-call vote. It was the correct decision to cancel the results of the vote and redo it,” the statement read.

Netanyahu stopped a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet that was discussing the potential further easing of restrictions, and allowed Likud ministers to go to the plenum to make sure the motion failed on the revote.

Opposition members were furious, with many of them stepping outside and boycotting the repeat vote in protest.

On the revote, 44 MKs voted against the motion with no votes in favor of it.

Opposition lawmakers have vowed to challenge Levin’s move at the High Court of Justice.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg after Knesset speaker nullifies vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The proposal from Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, with the backing of the Yesh Atid-Telem party, was meant to embarrass Blue and White, whose leaders last week expressed support for establishing the commission as part of its wrangling with Likud over the passing of a state budget, the central issue in the ongoing coalition crisis.

The commission was to look into the so-called Case 3000, a corruption probe nicknamed “the submarine affair” that revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. The scandal has embroiled several close associates of Netanyahu, as well as high ranking military officials, but not the premier himself.

The Knesset’s electronic display showing a 25-23 vote in favor of establishing an inquiry into the so-called submarine scandal on October 21, 2020 — a vote that was canceled by the Knesset speaker. (Channel 12 screenshot)

“An unbelievable shame,” said Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg. “The coalition canceled a vote after my proposal for a parliamentary commission of inquiry passed! There is no way we will allow a vote to be stolen.”

“A complete disgrace,” said Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz. “There has never been such a thing in the Knesset.”

Horowitz followed up by saying they would appeal the decision.

“We will petition the High Court,” said Horowitz in a tweet. “They won’t steal votes in the Israeli Knesset.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) said he had never seen a Knesset vote canceled after it had been held, and nor had any Knesset veterans with whom he spoke. “If you can cancel votes, you can close the Knesset,” he said. “Those that cancel the democratic decisions of the Knesset are laying the groundwork to cancel the decisions of the courts,” he added, alluding to the ongoing trial of Netanyahu on three graft charges.

“When the election results won’t suit Netanyahu, will he also call for a name ballot?” tweeted Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, referring to the government’s grounds for nixing the first vote.

The Knesset legal adviser’s department said it was looking into the vote. Liberman asserted that Zohar did not have the authority to demand a name-vote, and that Knesset protocols make clear that a cabinet minister needed to make such a request. Opposition MKs noted that David Amsalem, the government minister for coordination with the Knesset, was present in the plenum and made no such demand.

Zandberg insisted that the vote was technically sound, and could not legally be overturned once the result was confirmed on the Knesset electronic display.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG) said it intended to file a High Court petition against the nullification of the revote.

“Once again, the Knesset speaker, who is supposed to be the responsible, level-headed and honest official, is acting as the government’s henchman and is neutering and canceling Israel’s legislature,” said Tomer Naor of the MQG, referring to an incident earlier this year in which then-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to hold a vote on choosing a new Knesset speaker, even when the High Court ruled that he must call such a vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at a welcoming ceremony for a new submarine, Rahav, at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO /File)

Netanyahu’s political opponents have accused the premier of a possible conflict of interest in the Thyssenkrupp affair and have alleged he may have benefited financially from it. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party has said the accusations were politically motivated.

The scandal also involves the sale of two Dolphin-class submarines and two anti-submarine warships by Germany to Egypt, allegedly approved by Netanyahu, without consulting or notifying the Defense Ministry.

The state prosecution told the High Court of Justice on Sunday that it believes there is no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu over his stock trades or the submarine case.

The so-called stock affair pertains to allegations that Netanyahu illicitly profited by several million dollars from selling shares in a company to his cousin Nathan Milikowsky. That company later become a supplier to Thyssenkrupp.

Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he would not reassess Netanyahu’s role in the affair, even after a former Defense Ministry director’s affidavit, apparently tying Netanyahu to the case, was leaked.

The prime minister is currently on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them.

He denies any wrongdoing, and claims to be a victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, state prosecutors under Mandelblit’s authority, left-wing opposition and the media.

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