Knesset votes to form coronavirus committee, other oversight bodies

Knesset votes to form coronavirus committee, other oversight bodies

After right-wing walkout on vote on crucial parliamentary committees, center and left MKs push ahead with creation of special panels

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

MKs vote one by one in the Knesset plenary to form committees on March 24, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)
MKs vote one by one in the Knesset plenary to form committees on March 24, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

After gaining control of three key Knesset committees a day earlier, the Blue and White-led center and left-wing bloc pushed ahead Tuesday with the formation of four other special parliamentary committees, including one to oversee Israel’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Casting their votes one by one due to social distancing restrictions limiting the amount of people allowed in the plenary hall, center and left MKs approved each of the motions to form the committees with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of religious and right-wing parties boycotting the session.

Two MKs — Blue and White’s Alon Shuster and Ram Ben-Barak — voted for a second day in a row from behind the glass of the Knesset public gallery; both are currently under quarantine due to contact with someone diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The proposal to form the Coronavirus Committee, to be headed by MK Ofer Shelah of Blue and White, passed by 55 votes to zero; the Special Committee to Prepare the Education System and Special Education for the Next School Year, to be headed by MK Nitzan Horowitz of Labor-Meretz, was formed with a vote of 54 to zero; MKs voted by 51 to zero to form the Special Committee for Labor and Welfare, to be headed by a lawmaker from the Arab-majority Joint List; and the proposal to form the Committee to Reduce Crime and Violence in the Arab Sector, also to be headed by a lawmaker from the Joint List, passed by 53 to zero.

On Monday, after the Knesset voted to form the Arrangements Committee, MKs also decided to establish a temporary Finance Committee, to be headed by MK Oded Forer of Yisrael Beiteynu, and a temporary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to be headed by MK Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White. Those two committees do not require a plenary vote to be formed.

Each of the committees have 15 members, divided up by party according to the overall percentage of seats each won in the March election.

Arrangements Committee chairman MK Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White, speaking in the plenary before the vote, said it was crucial to have parliamentary oversight, especially during a time of crisis.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn speaks in the Knesset plenary before a vote to form four committees including the Coronavirus Committee, March 24, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

“Even if we have disputes inside this House and even if the political system is turbulent, one thing should essential to us and that is to uphold the rule of law and Supreme Court decisions and court decisions in general,” Nissenkorn said. “Otherwise, we will not be in democracy. As far as this is possible, the Israeli public is watching us and I think they want to see a Knesset working together, both in a joint war on the Corona and to safeguard democracy.”

The votes on the committees went ahead after a delay drew accusations the ruling Likud party was trying to stifle Israel’s democracy.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein set off a firestorm of criticism last Wednesday after he refused to allow the Knesset plenum to convene votes both on establishing the Arrangements Committee and electing a new speaker. Edelstein at first argued that the freeze was linked to safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak, and later claimed it was meant to force Likud and Blue and White to compromise, in unity talks.

Critics said it amounted to an illegal shuttering of parliament by the Likud party in order to improve the party’s leverage in the coalition talks, and some argued that it constituted part of an attempted political coup, with a parliamentary majority headed by Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz prevented from assuming control of the Knesset’s agenda.

Likud fumed Tuesday morning after the High Court of Justice ruled that the Knesset must be convened to choose a new speaker and after the Blue and White-led bloc used its 61-strong majority to form some of the parliamentary oversight committees.

The party said the right-wing bloc “will not cooperate with this and won’t take part in these undemocratic discussions and votes, which quash and ignore 58 MKs chosen by the people,” and vowed to fight the “thuggish and undemocratic behavior.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Monday night, High Court justices ordered Edelstein, a Likud member, to hold a vote by Wednesday on replacing him, ruling against Edelstein’s effort to block the vote, and calling his delaying tactics unjustified and anti-democratic.

Likud’s Tourism Minister Yariv Levin continued to attack the High Court Tuesday, a day after he, Justice Minister Amir Ohana and other right-wing lawmakers urged Edelstein to defy the court’s attempt to compel him to hold the vote, in what was seen as the seed of a possible constitutional crisis.

The High Court issued its ruling Monday night barely an hour after Edelstein rebuffed the justices’ ultimatum earlier in the day calling on him to hold a vote on a new speaker by the end of Wednesday.

Were Edelstein to again defy the court, Israel would be plunged into a constitutional crisis.

Edelstein would likely lose his job in the vote, since an alliance of 61 MKs led by Netanyahu’s rival Gantz is set to back Gantz loyalist Meir Cohen for the post. Blue and White would then gain control of the parliamentary agenda.

“The continued refusal to allow the Knesset to vote on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process,” the court’s president, Justice Esther Hayut, wrote in a damning indictment of Edelstein’s behavior.

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