Legislative blitz set to ramp up as jammed bills keep Netanyahu government at bay

None of the 4 rushed policy changes – now combined into 3 bills – has yet been finalized, with a deadline days away amid sustained criticism of push to expand ministerial powers

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Knesset special committee to discuss his proposed Police Ordinance changes, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Knesset special committee to discuss his proposed Police Ordinance changes, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A week of furious legislative activity meant to pave the way for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government has yet to yield any amendments addressing the demands of his potential coalition partners, with the incoming opposition employing a variety of parliamentary tools to gum the legislative process.

A rare Sunday plenum session closed early for the first night of Hanukkah before Likud could pass a bill it seeks to make it harder for disgruntled MKs to split off from their factions. A filibuster by opponents of the incoming coalition helped hold off a final vote on the measure.

Similarly, much debate ensued, but little legislative progress was made, in two committees to discuss bills demanded by Netanyahu’s allies.

One bill is meant to augment the Police Ordinance to expand ministerial authority over police leadership and policy, sought by Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar ben Gvir, who is set to take a ministerial post with responsibility for the police.

The second will change a Basic Law to enable a person serving a suspended sentence to become a minister without a determination of whether his crime carried moral turpitude, allowing convicted Shas leader Aryeh Deri to join the cabinet. It would also create an independent settler minister within the Defense Ministry, a position crafted to meet demands by Religious Zionism.

The Likud leader has had his political constellation in place since before the November 1 election, but is coming down to the wire on clinching a coalition agreement ahead of a midnight Wednesday deadline.

Likud’s allies have balked at signing full coalition deals until it is clear that their pet pieces of legislation will pass before Israel’s 37th government is sworn in, which must happen within seven days of the announcement of a coalition deal.

A nearly empty plenum hall during a Knesset session on December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The legislative push is planned to restart with renewed energy on Monday morning, with the plenum technically kept open since Wednesday morning to enable maximum voting flexibility.

Ben Gvir, the presumed incoming national security minister, defended his legislative demand as “democratic,” responding to criticism that a bill beefing up his authority over police will create command issues and concentrate too much power in his hands.

“In a democratic country, the minister determines the policy,” Ben Gvir told the special committee formed to prepare the bill for its first reading on the plenum floor, hours before the committee closed out its fourth day of debate without a vote to advance it forward.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu attends a vote during a plenum session at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Set to stipulate that the police commissioner is “subordinate” to the minister, and giving that minister the ability to determine policy, including that pertaining to investigations and enforcement, the hastily advanced bill has garnered criticism from a rotating cast of former police and security officials, as well as legal advisers, that MKs opposed to the bill have invited to the committee to testify.

“I don’t think there’s any debate that the general policy is under the responsibility of the minister” as the office currently operates, said National Unity party Gadi Eisenkot. But he questioned Ben Gvir’s demand to put investigations under his control.

Additionally, Eisenkot, a former IDF chief of staff, said that the bill should delineate that the police commissioner is “the highest commanding authority” in the police, to prevent a situation where commanders are unclear on whether to respect potentially conflicting directives from the minister and the commissioner.

Former police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki went further in his explicit criticism, saying that the bill suggests that the minister may neuter the police commissioner’s ability to set the operational direction for his force.

“In the memo [attached to the bill], there are hints that the minister will become the police commissioner and the police commissioner…a logistics officer,” Aharonishki told the special committee.

Meanwhile, police researcher and Haifa University professor Amnon Reichman said that there was “no precedent” for making such meaningful changes before a government was formed and as a condition to forming a government, also cautioning the need to take a reflective pause.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a special Knesset debate, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir ran a tough-on-crime-and-terror campaign, and promised to return security and governance to Israel, in the backdrop of a lingering terror wave and lacunae in police control of areas in Israel’s periphery. Although the two have claimed to have improved their relationship, Ben Gvir has often clashed with current police chief Kobi Shabtai, who accused Ben Gvir of fanning violent flames during the spring 2021 riots in Arab-Jewish mixed cities.

Shabtai came out strongly against the Police Ordinance changes in his testimony to the special committee, and in recent days, Ben Gvir has been said to be angry that Shabtai allegedly blindsided him and has threatened to swap him out when he gets to power.

Ben Gvir, who wants to put into law his right to set police investigation and enforcement policy, has been convicted of supporting a Jewish terror group and for racial incitement.

The attorney general’s office raised concern with the content and the process by which the Police Ordinance change is being rapidly pushed through, with Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara saying that the bill could be “a danger to democracy.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara speaks during a conference at the Haifa University, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari said the change would harm the independence of the police force.

“There are problems with the legislative process for this law,” she told the special committee. “It is not suited for speedy legislation a moment before the establishment of the government because it needs a deeper debate.”

“The current proposal is not balanced and cannot assure the continued independence of the police,” she added.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch told the committee Sunday that he had a problem with Baharav Miara’s quickly formed opinion against the bill, as reports leaked just two days after it was submitted that the attorney general opposed the measure and would not defend a court challenge against it.

Kisch said her quick reaction smacked of being political in nature. “I would love for the attorney general to issue a clarification as to why she made a decision that she opposes it before there was even phrasing for [the bill].”

Deputy Attorney General for Administrative Affairs Gil Limon told Kisch that he is “delegitimizing legal advice,” and counseled against casually accusing Baharav Miara.

“The attorney general, Gali Baharav Miara, is independent, statesmanlike, businesslike, and professional, and the attempt to silence us will not work,” Limon said in the committee meeting.

In addition to continued committee discussion to prepare the Police Ordinance update for its first official vote in the plenum, a separate special committee will continue to prep the Basic Law bill for its second and third readings, which are needed to make it law.

A vote on the “faction split off” bill’s second and third readings is expected Monday.

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