MKs advance bills to let Deri take ministry; grant Ben Gvir, Smotrich broad powers

Likud-led bloc fast-tracks legislation crucial to incoming coalition, seeking to expand and reshape ministerial authorities, prevent MK rebellions

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

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (L) embraces Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir during a Knesset session at which a new speaker was elected, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas leader Aryeh Deri (L) embraces Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir during a Knesset session at which a new speaker was elected, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hours after electing a new Knesset speaker from their camp, incoming coalition members won preliminary votes on four bills, some of them highly contentious, set down as political preconditions for finalizing the hardline government coalescing under Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Demanded by Likud’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners, three of the bills will augment key roles and powers: expanding the authority of the national security minister — set to be Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir — over the police force; clearing a path for a party leader serving a suspended sentence — Shas’s Aryeh Deri — to helm three ministries; and enabling a member of Religious Zionism, likely party leader Bezalel Smotrich, to become an independent minister in the Defense Ministry in control of West Bank building.

The fourth will make it harder for rebel MKs to peel off from their parliamentary factions without sanction, a bill specifically desired by Likud.

The bills advanced by 61 votes to 53, 62 to 53, 61 to 51, and 61 votes to 52, respectively.

Clearing its first of several legislative hurdles eight days out from the December 21 expiration of Netanyahu’s mandate to form the government, the incoming coalition is sprinting to wrap up voting early next week. Electing Yariv Levin as Knesset speaker earlier Tuesday was critical to give the incoming coalition control over the voting agenda; as a next step, the Arrangements Committee head, Likud MK Yoav Kisch, will quickly push the bills to committees in preparation for their next votes.

In addition to Likud, the three far-right and two ultra-Orthodox parties poised to form Israel’s most conservative government yet were aligned in their support of the bills. Opposition ministers warn that the bills endanger democracy and security, as well as subvert the legal system.

Implanting an independent minister in charge of West Bank building policy within the Defense Ministry requires augmenting one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which despite their elevated status, are easily changed with the passing of a bill with the support of at least 61 MKs.

Sitting from left to right: Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, outgoing Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, and outgoing Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, at the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Smotrich, who is expected to take the newly-formed position in the Defense Ministry, is a staunch settlement supporter and advocate of annexing West Bank land.

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz charged that the incoming coalition was trying to create a parallel defense ministry in charge of the West Bank and warned that the boundaries of authority were not clearly delineated in the draft coalition agreements.

He added that coupled with the expanded powers promised to Ben Gvir in the police ministry — slated to include moving the West Bank’s Border Police division from the IDF’s command to the police — the parceling off of Defense Ministry responsibilities to different chains of command will harm security.

“In order to form a government, you’re dismantling security,” he said to members of the incoming coalition.

Critics have charged that putting an ultranationalist minister in charge of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank may create a situation akin to annexation. Directing his comments to Smotrich, Gantz said that de facto annexation would be worse than formal annexation, and challenged the incoming minister to force Israel out of its limbo in the West Bank.

“If the desire is to put the territory under civilian control, do not invent offices and administrations, and apply special laws. Just apply sovereignty and deal with the results,” Gantz said of the West Bank, which has been under IDF-administered martial law since its capture during the 1967 Six Day War.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Successive Israeli governments have failed to form definitive policy vis-a-vis the territory, home to close to 3 million Palestinians and about 500,000 Israeli settlers. Instead, it continues to permit controlled Jewish settlement, while simultaneously avoiding extending its sovereignty over the territory.

“Even prime minister-designate Netanyahu knows that unilateral annexation would be a security disaster and the end of the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic state,” Gantz said.

Israel fears that incorporating the West Bank’s Palestinian residents as full citizens in the Jewish state would create a demographic crisis threatening the country’s Jewish majority. Meanwhile, the alternative scenario — annexation without granting full rights to Palestinian residents — would be perceived by the international community as apartheid, a prospect that some members of far-right parties are undaunted by.

While Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit is slated to incorporate a piece of West Bank security into his portfolio, the update to police directives that was passed on the Knesset floor Tuesday dealt with the police commissioner’s subordination to Ben Gvir’s post as national security minister.

Outgoing Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said in the discussion preceding the vote that broadening the police minister’s powers would threaten to turn Israel into a “police state.”

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barlev said that while the bill is meant to create a command relationship between police minister and police commissioner akin to the IDF chief of staff’s subordination to the defense minister, the comparison is inappropriate. The IDF operates against external threats, while the police deals with Israeli citizens. Thus, he said, the primacy of Israeli law should remain unchallenged, even in the face of directives from the minister in charge.

Barlev also said it was unnecessary to expand the minister’s authority, claiming that he had “no difficulty” setting policy within existing authorities.

Ben Gvir countered that Barlev had chaffed against the limits of his power, and that “suddenly when we suggest it, it’s not democratic and harms human rights?”

In another potential change to a Basic Law, the plenum voted to advance a bill that would let Shas leader Deri take up his planned posts as interior and health minister, and later in the Knesset term, finance minister, despite his recent suspended sentence for tax fraud.

The current law bars someone from serving as a minister if they have been sentenced to prison within the past seven years. It is vague on whether this applies only to custodial sentences or also to suspended terms, and the attorney general recommended that the head of the Central Elections Committee rule on the matter.

If finalized, the Basic Law update will obviate the need to send the case to the CEC for decision.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar attends a ceremony at the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, June 28, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Outgoing Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that the measure “circumvents the law.”

The plenum also swiftly approved a Likud-sponsored bill to make it more difficult for rebellious lawmakers to split off from their parties without facing personal sanctions. In 2021, the outgoing government passed a correction to the Knesset Law to enable a minimum of four MKs to split off, in hopes of attracting Likud defectors to the coalition.

Likud’s update would remove the provision, making it so that at least a third of any party’s MKs must peel off together to form a new, unsanctioned faction.

The four votes came shortly after the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee wrapped a marathon, nearly nine-hour session to approve fast-tracking the bills to their preliminary votes. Normally, the bills would have to pass a 45-day waiting period before being submitted and considered for a vote.

The Arrangements Committee prepared to meet immediately after the close of the legislative session on Tuesday evening, in order to form committees for the bill’s next steps in the legislative journey.

After their next committee discussions, the bills will come up for their so-called first readings, in practice their second votes, possibly on Wednesday. Afterward, they will return to committee debate, before being approved for their second and third readings, often conducted together. After they pass their third readings, bills become laws.

While a simple majority is sufficient for most laws, Basic Laws require the vote of at least 61 MKs in their final readings to pass.

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