Gantz: Netanyahu only speaks responsibly in English

New Knesset passes its first law, meant to thwart potential internal Likud rebellion

Law cancels provision that let 4 MKs split off from their party without consequence; legislative blitz to continue Tuesday, with votes on bills aimed at meeting allies’ demands

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

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir talk at the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir talk at the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

A week into its legislative blitz, Benjamin Netanyahu’s presumed incoming coalition passed the 25th Knesset’s first law, which will make it harder for rebel lawmakers to peel off from their factions.

Approved 63-51 in its third and final reading on Monday, the change removes a provision — legislated by the outgoing government — that enabled four members of any party to split off together and form a separate faction, without legal sanctions that would prevent such MKs from running with existing parties in the following election. Now, after Monday’s change, only a group representing at least a third of the faction, constituting a group of at least 2 lawmakers, can leave a party.

The 32-member Likud faction pushed the bill in order to shut down the threat of disgruntled lawmakers leaving the party, or using their potential to do so as leverage against expected incoming prime minister Netanyahu.

The outgoing coalition lowered the threshold to four MKs in 2021, in futile hopes of wooing defectors from Likud.

A minimum of 11 MKs would now need to peel away from Likud to avoid repercussions.

The bill is the first of four rushed pieces of legislation finalized by the incoming coalition. Netanyahu’s coalition partners have set the other three, combined into two bills, as conditions for swearing in the government — consisting of right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties — by next week.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (top L) and Likud MK Yariv Levin (bottom L), during Levin’s election to Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The explanatory notes to the bill reiterated its intention to protect “factional cohesion” and help large parties retain their MKs.

The previous amendment “makes it easier for Knesset members from large factions to split from their faction, which could undermine factional cohesion,” the Likud members proposing the law wrote. “Factional stability can contribute to a more accurate reflection of election results and thus strengthen the public’s trust in its elected representatives,” it continued.

Israeli lawmakers are not elected individually, but rather as part of a single party slate, which determines seats based on the proportion of the national vote received. While this dynamic usually enforces party discipline among faction members and the faction leader, Netanyahu is hedging against grumbling among his ranks due to some longstanding tensions as well as fresh dissatisfaction from lawmakers who won’t receive their desired jobs in the next government.

Likud worked tirelessly to lure MKs away from parties in the outgoing coalition, and that pressure contributed to the last government’s collapse as members of then-prime minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party defected. Aware of the power of defection, Likud has now shored up its flanks.

Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with MK Yariv Levin during Levin’s election as Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After Monday’s vote, the plenum closed early due to the Hanukkah festival, and will convene again on Tuesday morning. But debates continued for a few hours in two Knesset special committees tasked with preparing legislation set forth as political requirements by the incoming coalition for its formation, on the sixth working day of their legislative blitz.

Amid fiery opposition from political rivals, former and current police leaders, and the attorney general’s office, expected national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir has been demanding legislation to expand the powers wielded by the holder of that office over police policy and leadership, in what critics have said will undermine the force’s independence.

After being stuck for the past five days, the bill was cleared by the committee on Monday and will therefore proceed Tuesday to its first reading on the Knesset floor.

A second special committee is discussing changes to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government to enable appointing an additional minister in the Defense Ministry — expected to be Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich — and, separately, to allow a person who received a suspended sentence — such as Shas party leader Aryeh Deri — to become a minister.

These bills, too, have been slammed by critics. The first part would allegedly disrupt the government’s command system on security issues and grant a far-right politician control over key decision-making regarding the West Bank, while the second would make it easier for convicted criminals to land government posts and is aimed at evading a legal ruling that currently prevents Deri from becoming a minister.

Shortly before voting to advance two Basic Law changes through a special Knesset committee, the bill’s backers inserted a clause to give it immediate effect, angering members of the outgoing government and causing them to argue that the discussion must be reset to discuss the timing.

Committee chairman Shlomo Karhi, a Likud lawmaker, decided that the debate on the bill would restart on Tuesday morning.

Incoming coalition lawmakers are trying to avoid the required 10-day implementation timeline in order to allow the next government to be fully sworn in within days.

Outgoing defense minister and National Unity party chief Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile on Monday, outgoing defense minister Benny Gantz took aim at Netanyahu at a faction meeting of his National Unity party, charging that the expected incoming premier “speaks responsibly in English and conducts himself irresponsibly in Hebrew.”

“Netanyahu used to say that [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership speak about peace in English while inflaming terrorism in Arabic. It seems to me that he has adopted part of that method,” Gantz said.

He cited examples in recent weeks in which Netanyahu said in English-language interviews that he will not hand over powers in the West Bank — while giving far-right coalition partners sweeping authorities there; and promised in English to not harm minority rights — while pushing judicial reforms that will significantly curtail the Supreme Court’s ability to protect minorities.

Gantz argued that Netanyahu’s English-language commitments do not square with his actions at home.

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