After delay, law letting parties replace ministers in Knesset faces first vote

After delay, law letting parties replace ministers in Knesset faces first vote

As so-called Norwegian Law moves ahead, Likud party reportedly worried some future MKs from Yesh Atid-Telem party may not switch to Blue and White and end up bolstering opposition

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

A cabinet meeting of the new government at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)
A cabinet meeting of the new government at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

Following disagreements within the new coalition, a bill that would allow ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament was set to be voted on in its first Knesset plenary reading Wednesday.

The so-called Norwegian Law would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead. Under the bill’s new rules, if such a minister later resigns from the cabinet, they would automatically return to the Knesset.

Last week, the bill was taken off the legislative agenda amid disagreements over the parliament’s new committees and coalition fears that the legislation could backfire to empower the opposition.

The proposal takes its name from Norwegian legislation mandating all government ministers resign their seat in the parliament. That process is intended to create a separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislature.

The Israeli version, however, comes primarily in response to what many consider to be a short-handed Knesset, with a significant number of parliamentary seats effectively inactive because their holders are in the cabinet. Under current law, serving cabinet ministers are severely limited in their functions as MKs. They are not allowed to serve as speaker or deputy speaker, to sit on committees or even to propose bills.

A similar law was passed in the last Knesset, but did not apply to future governments.

Cabinet ministers listen as Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and cabinet secretary Tzahi Braverman speak at a first cabinet meeting, in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset, after the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, May 17, 2020 (GPO)

By definition, this legislative manpower problem is felt most acutely by the ruling coalition. The current 73-seat coalition must conduct its parliamentary work without the 33 lawmakers, a record high, serving in cabinet posts and up to 16 more in deputy ministerial positions. The 47-seat opposition suffers no such pressures.

Meanwhile, the 120-member strong Knesset is itself relatively small compared to the parliaments of similar-sized democracies. Austria, with roughly Israel’s population at 8.6 million, has a parliament with two houses and 245 members. Switzerland’s similarly bicameral federal legislature has 246 members serving its 8.2 million citizens. And Sweden, home to 9.8 million Swedes, has 349 lawmakers in its single house.

In Israel, the unity coalition deal ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in last week. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.

The government launched with 33 cabinet ministers in addition to the prime minister. (Blue and White has yet to name an additional one of its ministers.) There are also to be up to 16 deputy ministers. The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million). There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Channel 12, the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties are aiming to bring three new lawmakers apiece into the Knesset to fill the seats currently occupied by government ministers, plus two for Likud and five for Blue and White.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party is concerned the future lawmakers from partner Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party may retain their allegiance to Gantz’s former allies Yesh Atid and Telem, which are in the opposition. Blue and White, formerly a unified alliance of the three parties, had split ahead of the coalition talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) attend a cabinet meeting of the new government at Chagall State Hall in the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 24, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

One Blue and White minister will have his seat taken by a member of the Yesh Atid-Telem party. Of the remaining four new lawmakers, two are members of Yesh Atid-Telem who are expected to switch sides and join Blue and White under a Knesset provision enabling new MKs from combined slates that divided after elections to choose, within 24 hours of taking up their seat, which of the parties they will represent.

But Likud fears those two MKs may choose to remain in the opposition with Yesh Atid-Telem, the report said.

Blue and White originally sought to pass a “skipping Norwegian Law,” which would have allowed a party to choose members to enter the Knesset not according to their original place on the slate. It was aimed at sidestepping the need to let members of the Yesh Atid-Telem faction enter the Knesset.

The High Court, however, said that the skipping version posed “significant legal difficulties.”

The plenary vote, the first of three, is expected to take place shortly after Wednesday’s session opens at 11 a.m.

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