MKs will enter six at a time for first votes of new Knesset amid coronavirus

Blue and White expected to gain control of key committees as parliament takes up challenges of providing oversight while interim government tackles crisis

A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)
A nearly empty plenum, due to restrictions against the coronavirus, is seen at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. At left is Benny Gantz. Center, with back to camera, is Benjamin Netanyahu (Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson)

Israeli lawmakers will be restricted to entering the Knesset in groups of six at a time for a series of votes as the parliament reopens for business Monday, facing the unprecedented twin challenges of the coronavirus and safeguarding democratic oversight during the crisis.

Knesset director general Albert Saharovich announced the planned measures late Sunday to allow the Knesset to open and vote on forming committees, while taking necessary social distancing precautions. The House was shuttered last Wednesday in highly controversial circumstances.

At any given time no more than 10 people will be allowed inside the plenum. Speakers will sign up in advance and will be called to enter when it is their turn to speak. Waiting areas will be designated for those slated to speak. Those outside the plenum will be able to view the goings-on inside on screens.

Voting in the plenum will take place in groups of six MKs at a time, by alphabetical order.

With committees expected to be formed, most will be split between two rooms, with members of the panels communicating with each other via videoconference.

As for the seven MKs currently in quarantine, they will be allowed to vote, though the manner in which they will do so has not yet been finalized.

Shas chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, forward right, and Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman, left rear, at the plenum hall during the opening of the 22nd Knesset, in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

As of Sunday, seven lawmakers were in quarantine — Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Regional Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Shas MKs Moshe Abutbul and Yitzhak Cohen, and Blue and White MKs Ram Ben-Barak and Alon Shuster — five from the coalition and two from the opposition.

The Blue and White party said Sunday it would not agree to cancel out the votes of coalition members in quarantine by having an equivalent number of its own MKs skip the relevant plenary session, a practice sometimes adopted in other circumstances.

“According to the law, and this is also what Blue and White will follow, every MK is eligible to vote. Solutions need be found to make it happen,” a party spokesperson told The Times of Israel Sunday.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of parties was considering boycotting Monday’s proceedings at the Knesset to protest the center-left bloc’s expected wins in votes throughout the day, the Ynet news site reported. This would guarantee Blue and White control over the key Knesset Arrangements Committee, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed at the outset and who will staff them.

Blue and White plans to vote on the formation of the 23rd Knesset’s committees, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Finance Committee and a special committee to oversee the handling of the pandemic.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) and President Reuven Rivlin at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Mark Heyman and and Haim Zach/GPO)

Blue and White was also planning to try to appoint one of its own MKs as the new Knesset speaker, though current speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud is at the moment blocking such a vote. The High Court has been deliberating whether to force him to allow it.

If the vote does go ahead, Netanyahu might not have the backing of some key allies. Yamina and United Torah Judaism have refused to sign the latest Likud document pledging allegiance to Netanyahu, the Walla news site reported.

Netanyahu’s allies were reportedly being asked to vow that any negotiations for a unity government will be halted if Blue and White appoints a Knesset speaker of its own to replace Edelstein.

The report said some in Yamina were uncomfortable with the wording in the document, including claims that Blue and White was seeking “Iranian-like anti-democratic laws” and “dictatorial laws.” Meanwhile UTJ sources said, “We don’t like the style of signing [something] every other day.”

The jockeying over the new Knesset comes as Israel has been dealing with the massive challenges of the corinavirus following a year without a proper government.

On Sunday morning, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said that the parliament cannot be shuttered due to coronavirus fears, or as a coalition negotiating tactic by the Likud party.

Their legal opinions, submitted to the High Court of Justice, dealt a blow to Speaker Edelstein’s efforts to prevent a vote on his replacement.

The High Court was hearing several petitions against the shuttering of the parliament on Sunday afternoon. The petitions were being heard by a five-judge panel: Chief Justice Esther Hayut and fellow justices Hanan Melcer, Neal Hendel, Uzi Fogelman and Isaac Amit.

Edelstein, who shuttered the Knesset on Wednesday citing various justifications — including Blue and White obduracy over the terms for the new committees, his desire for a unity government, and concern over MKs’ health —  promised to allow votes in the plenum to resume on Monday, with the exception of a vote to replace him with a new speaker. Likud warned in a statement on Sunday that a vote to replace the speaker would “doom the unity government and condemn us to a fourth election,” and called Blue and White’s insistence on holding plenum votes “shocking irresponsibility during a global coronavirus pandemic.”

Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a protest to “save democracy” outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eyal Warshavsky)

In his opinion, Mandelblit said Health Ministry directives prohibiting gatherings of over 10 people could not be applied to the Knesset or its committees, which were not under any government ministry’s authority, and so those restrictions could not constitute a reason for preventing the parliament from holding sessions.

He also said it was imperative that the Arrangements Committee be established right away to allow the newly sworn-in Knesset to function.

Edelstein set off a firestorm of criticism last Wednesday after he refused to allow the Knesset plenum to convene to vote on establishing the Arrangements Committee and electing a new speaker. Edelstein at first argued the freeze was linked to safety precautions amid the coronavirus outbreak, but later explained it was meant to force Likud and Blue and White to compromise in unity talks.

Critics said it amounted to an illegal shuttering of parliament by Likud in order to improve the party’s leverage in the coalition talks. The closure meant intrusive digital tracking of all Israelis, aimed at avoiding the spread of the virus, was introduced on Wednesday without parliamentary oversight. The High Court has ruled that the monitoring will have to be suspended on Tuesday if the relevant Knesset committee is not functioning by then.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, the freeze appears to be unique among democratic parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many parliaments have curtailed or changed working arrangements due to the virus, only two others stopped operations altogether, those of Romania and Canada. In both cases — unlike in Israel — the parliament’s members voted for the move.

Knesset legal adviser Yinon said in his opinion Sunday that Edelstein did not have the authority to prevent Knesset plenum gatherings, particularly given his standing as an acting speaker held over from the 21st Knesset, two inconclusive elections ago. That status limited his ability to declare sweeping restrictions on the Knesset’s work, including the decision not to allow plenum votes that could replace him with a new speaker.

“A situation in which an unelected Knesset speaker serves only by virtue of the principle of continuity is likely to lead to a result in which the current majority in the Knesset finds it difficult to advance moves that it wants,” Yinon wrote.

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