Legislation cementing Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing deal passes first vote

Proposal is part of massive legislative bid to anchor unity government deal in law, which is being challenged in the High Court of Justice

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)

The Knesset on Thursday approved in its first reading a bill that seeks to enshrine in law a power-sharing deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, which would see the two rotate the premiership.

The proposal, which still requires two more plenum votes, is part of a massive legislative overhaul by the two parties to entrench their unity government deal in legislation, and comes as the High Court of Justice weighs petitions on whether these parliamentary steps are constitutional.

The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle with 72 lawmakers supporting it and 31 opposing. It will be discussed and revised at a special Knesset committee headed by Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg before coming back to the plenum floor for its final two votes.

The proposal seeks to prevent Netanyahu from reneging on the rotation deal in 18 months, when he is set to hand the reins to Gantz, who will in the interim serve as defense minister in the government and have a veto on numerous policy issues.

To prevent Netanyahu from later overturning the legislation with a regular majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament — which he could feasibly obtain — the bill stipulates that canceling it would require a special majority of 75 lawmakers.

A protester against the coalition agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White parties, in Tel Aviv on April 24, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Many have speculated that Netanyahu will not honor the rotation agreement that requires him to hand over power to Gantz in October 2021. Gantz, therefore, has been working with Likud to pass the bill anchoring the necessary mechanism in the law, which involves changing two of Israel’s constitutional Basic Laws.

Such significant changes to the Basic Laws, weakening the power of the Knesset majority to rein in the government, has been criticized in some quarters as detrimental to democracy.

Gantz’s decision to form a unity government with Netanyahu caused a split in his Blue and White alliance, with former partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, of the Yesh Atid and Telem parties, respectively, breaking away. Lapid is now set to lead the Knesset opposition.

In a bombshell move, Lapid on Monday promised his party would vote with Netanyahu if the prime minister seeks to cancel his rotation agreement with Gantz. Lapid would thus help to ensure the necessary majority to cancel the law on the Netanyahu-Gantz power-sharing deal, and bring down the government.

Lapid said he would agree to reverse all of the law changes currently being discussed, because “we respect democracy and these terrible and embarrassing laws need to be canceled.”

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz (R) and party no. 2 Yair Lapid at an election event hosted by the Tel Aviv International Salon, Tel Aviv, February 17, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Among the revisions being debated in Knesset to cement the unity deal are: establishing a new kind of “alternating” government composed of a prime minister and an “alternate” prime minister; creating a new “emergency” form of executive government with the power to freeze all legislation not connected to the coronavirus crisis or approved by the two (current and future) prime ministers; setting the current Knesset’s lifespan at 36 months and establishing a date for the next election; and passing the so-called “skipping Norwegian law” that allows some of the eventually envisaged 52 ministers and deputy ministers of the new government (nearly half of parliament) to temporarily resign their Knesset posts to let new MKs into the parliament in their stead — but not according to their slate’s original order, so as not to inadvertently increase the size of the Yesh Atid and Telem factions.

The High Court of Justice announced Tuesday that a large panel of 11 justices will begin hearing petitions next week asking them to bar Netanyahu from returning to the premiership while he remains under indictment in his corruption trial.

Netanyahu is set to go on trial in May for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies the allegations.

The court will also begin to consider arguments against the coalition deal signed on April 20 between Likud and Blue and White. The court process comes as a May 7 deadline looms for the formation of a new government, with the risk of new elections if the coalition deal stalls.

The hearings, which will be held on Sunday and Monday, are politically charged. The coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz states that if Netanyahu is prevented from serving as prime minister, the Knesset will dissolve and call new elections slated for August — which would be the fourth consecutive vote in 16 months.

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