MKs give initial green light to bill blocking ‘coup’ against Netanyahu
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MKs give initial green light to bill blocking ‘coup’ against Netanyahu

Legislation limits president to choosing solely from among party chiefs to form a government, securing Likud leader’s position against potential challengers

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

A bill that would limit the powers of the president in deciding whom to task with forming a government, seemingly aimed at preventing a coup from within the Likud party, passed an initial test in the Knesset Wednesday.

The so-called “Gideon Sa’ar bill” — named after a Likud lawmaker who was thrust into the center of alleged plans to usurp Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a future election — was approved by a vote of 60 to 55 on preliminary reading.

It will now move to the Knesset’s State Control Committee ahead of preparations for further readings and approval by the plenum.

The bill, which comes in the form of an amendment to a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would ensure that only the leader of each elected political party has the right to form a government and not any other figure on the parties’ lists.

It was proposed by coalition chair David Amsalem (Likud) following claims that President Reuven Rivlin was looking at the possibility of asking Sa’ar, a potential challenger to Netanyahu in the next elections, to form a government.

Head of the Meretz political party MK Tamar Zandberg leads a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rivlin and Sa’ar both denied any such plot.

Leader of the opposition Meretz party MK Tamar Zandberg slammed government lawmakers for passing legislation she claimed was aimed solely at protecting Netanyahu.

“For a long time now this coalition has been busy with nothing else except to protect the seat of a corrupt prime minister,” she said, referring to police recommendations that Netanyahu be indicted in three separate corruption cases.

Amsalem protested that the legislation was intended to clarify the method of selecting the leader of government.

“Those who want to engage in petty politics attach a nickname to the law and then [people] don’t understand what the law is about,” he said. “The law seeks something that is obvious and I can’t understand those who object to it.”

The heads of coalition parties came to an agreement in their weekly meeting Sunday to support the bill in its preliminary Knesset reading, allowing further discussions to be held on the government’s position, according to a Likud party spokesperson at the time.

Sa’ar was a rising star in Likud until he took a break from politics in 2014. Analysts consider him a top contender for the premiership in a post-Netanyahu era, and he continues to enjoy high popularity among Likud activists. Sa’ar has expressed the intention of running for the leadership, not only of Likud, but of the country.

According to current law, after elections, the president consults with the heads of all factions before asking the party leader deemed to have the best chance of forming a government to begin negotiations with potential coalition partners. The leader tasked with forming a government is generally the one who receives the most recommendations from other parties, and is usually — but not necessarily — the head of the party that has won the largest number of seats.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with President Reuven Rivlin during the Israel Prize ceremony at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rumors of the purported planned “coup” by Sa’ar were reportedly the reason Netanyahu has been delaying a decision on bringing forward the 2019 elections.

According to a report in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper in October, the prime minister had recently decided to dissolve the Knesset during the first few days of its winter session, but then received word from associates and officials within the Likud party that Rivlin would not task him with forming a new government after the elections, due to concerns relating to the criminal investigations into him.

The report said that leaders of other parties could also condition their participation in the government on it being led by someone other than Netanyahu.

After the report was published, Netanyahu publicly accused Sa’ar of plotting to replace him, calling the alleged plan the “conspiracy of the century.”

According to the report, Rivlin was mulling the possibility of tasking someone other than Netanyahu with forming the government — another MK within Likud, if the party wins resoundingly, or a lawmaker from another party, if the margin of victory is narrower — in light of the ongoing corruption investigations against the prime minister.

Since becoming president in 2015, Rivlin has publicly differed with Netanyahu on a number of hot-button issues, though he has refrained from directly attacking the prime minister. The president has also been outspoken in defending various institutions from attacks by Netanyahu and his allies.

On Sunday, meeting Likud ministers, Netanyahu said he has since understood that Rivlin planned to entrust the person with the largest number of recommendations to form a government, regardless of other factors.

Police have recommended indicting Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, and lawmakers close to him have launched repeated attacks on the press and police, proposing various pieces of legislation to limit their ability to report on or investigate public figures, respectively.

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