'If you can cancel votes, you can close the Knesset'

Opposition fumes, plans court challenge after submarine probe vote voided

Lapid accuses Netanyahu’s allies of eroding democracy after parliament speaker overturns vote that approved inquiry; Meretz head, good governance group vow to petition top court

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg after Knesset speaker nullifies a vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg after Knesset speaker nullifies a vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Opposition lawmakers on Wednesday assailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin overturned a plenum vote to establish a parliamentary inquiry into a major graft case in which several allies of the premier face criminal charges.

Levin, a Likud party ally of Netanyahu’s, revoked the initial vote on a technicality and the proposal was then rejected in a second vote, amid chaotic scenes and vocal protests from the opposition.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid-Telem party backed the motion, said the government’s behavior voided the Knesset’s role in Israeli democracy.

“I’ve been a member of Knesset for eight years. Never has a vote been canceled after the vote. I’ve spoken to the longest-serving members of this house; none of them remember something like this,” Lapid said in a televised statement. “If you can cancel votes, you can close the Knesset. It isn’t needed anymore.”

The Knesset’s electronic display showing a 25-23 vote in favor of establishing an inquiry into the so-called submarine scandal on October 21, 2020 — a vote that was canceled by the Knesset speaker. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Lapid called the Knesset “just a theater so that Netanyahu can go around the world and claim Israel is still a democracy.”

He claimed the coalition wanted to block the inquiry into the corruption scandal, known as the so-called submarine affair, because if it went ahead Netanyahu would be implicated.

“He is up to his neck in this scandal. That’s why they are willing to do everything to prevent an investigation,” Lapid said.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum on October 19, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset Spokesperson)

He also expressed disappointment that his former allies in the Blue and White party had skipped the vote. Blue and White abandoned a partnership with Lapid’s Yesh Atid to create a ruling coalition with Netanyahu, promising to curb his behavior from the inside.

“They aren’t the last line of defense for democracy; they are the last line of defense for Netanyahu,” Lapid said. “Netanyahu’s people shot Israel’s democracy from point-blank range and Blue and White ran away again.”

The high-stakes motion had not been expected to be approved after Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party said its members wouldn’t back it, but in a surprise turn of events it was passed 25-23.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar pleads his case to Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas in the plenum on October 21, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

Levin, however, immediately nullified that result, saying that coalition whip Miki Zohar had demanded a voice vote rather than the electronic vote that was held.

He added that some MKs, including himself, hadn’t heard the announcement by Deputy Knesset Speaker Mansour Abbas (Joint List) that voting had begun. Levin and Abbas later put out a joint statement defending the move.

“After I heard that there was a request for a voice vote I considered canceling the vote. The matter is before the Knesset legal adviser and will likely reach the supreme [court],” Abbas told Kan public radio.

He rejected claims that he gave into pressure from Levin.

“No one can pressure or behave toward me in a disrespectful way. I do what I believe in,” Abbas said.

Zohar said he believed Abbas didn’t hear his request for a voice vote.

“I don’t think that Abbas did this intentionally,” Zohar told Army Radio. “It could be there was a misunderstanding.”

During the repeat vote, some opposition party members chanted “shame” while others left the plenum in protest.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, who submitted the proposal, slammed the coalition’s actions and vowed to petition the High Court of Justice.

“There was a vote in the Knesset. It was held and announced. Only when they saw the results on the board did the problems start. A vote that is canceled after seeing the results is a grave thing,” she told Army Radio.

MK Avigdor Liberman, head of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, also hit out at Netanyahu.

“When the election results don’t suit Netanyahu, will he also request a name vote?” Liberman tweeted, referring to the government’s grounds for nixing the first vote.

Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz also said he would appeal to the High Court against the nullification of the vote, as did the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

Opposition MKs express anger after Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin nullifies vote calling for inquiry into submarine affair, October 21, 2020 (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

“Once again, the Knesset speaker, who is supposed to be the responsible, level-headed and honest official, is acting as the government’s henchman and is neutering and canceling Israel’s legislature,” said Tomer Naor of the good government group, referring to an incident earlier this year in which then-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to hold a vote on choosing a new Knesset speaker, even when the High Court ruled that he must call such a vote.

The office of the Knesset legal adviser said it was looking into the vote. Liberman asserted that Zohar did not have the authority to demand a name-vote, and that Knesset protocols make clear that a cabinet minister needed to make such a request. Opposition MKs noted that David Amsalem, the government minister for coordination with the Knesset, was present in the plenum and made no such demand.

Zandberg insisted that the vote was technically sound, and could not legally be overturned once the result was confirmed on the Knesset electronic display.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) addresses the Knesset plenum as Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin looks on, October 19, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

On the revote, 44 MKs voted against the motion with no votes in favor of it.

The commission was to look into the so-called Case 3000, a corruption probe nicknamed “the submarine affair” that revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. The scandal has embroiled several close associates of Netanyahu, as well as high ranking military officials, but not the premier himself.

Netanyahu’s political opponents have accused the premier of a possible conflict of interest in the Thyssenkrupp affair and have alleged he may have benefited financially from it. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party has said the accusations were politically motivated.

An Israeli nuclear Dolphin submarine in Kiel, northern Germany (photo credit: AP/Philipp Guelland)
An Israeli Dolphin submarine at the shipyards in Kiel, northern Germany (photo credit: AP/Philipp Guelland)

The state prosecution told the High Court of Justice on Sunday that it believes there is no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu over the submarine case.

Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he would not reassess Netanyahu’s role in the affair, even after a former Defense Ministry director’s affidavit, apparently tying Netanyahu to the case, was leaked.

The prime minister is currently on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing, and claims to be victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, state prosecutors under Mandelblit’s authority, left-wing opposition and the media.

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