The Knesset voted Wednesday to reject a bill that would prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new government, as the premier and opposition chief Yair Lapid sparred in a debate that at times became highly personal.
The opposition bill would have barred a Knesset member under indictment from putting together a government. If passed in three readings, it would have blocked Netanyahu from again assembling a coalition after a potential election, due to the graft charges against him. Fifty three MKs voted against the law, while 37 were in favor.
The Blue and White party sat out the vote on the bill, with lawmakers from the faction reportedly split over whether the legislation should receive their backing.
Likud and Blue and White are at loggerheads over the state budget, which must be passed by August 25 or the Knesset will automatically dissolve and new elections will be called.
Blue and White briefly considered backing the bill as relations with Likud deteriorated in recent days and amid party suspicions the prime minister is looking for an excuse to go to elections, but said Tuesday that its members would walk out of the vote.
Netanyahu surprised the plenum by appearing at the debate and delivering remarks in which he said the proposed legislation was reminiscent of the laws seen in countries under dictatorships.
“Here of all places, in the Knesset, the hall of Israeli democracy, we are today witnessing another disgusting episode in a never-ending campaign on the part of those who say they uphold democracy, but hold a sword for its decapitation in their hands,” Netanyahu said.
“This bill is a complete distortion. Where do such laws pass? The only place in the world that passes laws to thwart candidates is in Iran and North Korea,” Netanyahu said. “Lapid, a thousand masks will not be able to cover your dictatorship. With one hand you organize left-wing demonstrations and with the other you bring Iranian law to the Knesset to prevent me from being elected prime minister.”
Netanyahu also mocked Lapid for lacking a high school diploma or college degree, suggesting that made the opposition chief unfit to be prime minister.
“Your condescension toward right-wing and Likud voters is unforgivable. Everything is fake with you,” Netanyahu said. “You’re constantly pretending. Without a matriculation certificate and without a bachelor’s degree you tried to get a fake PhD,” the premier said, referring to the 2012 controversy when Lapid was admitted to a doctorate track based on his extra-academic credentials rather than his academic record — a standard procedure which only began making headlines in Israel following Lapid’s decision to enter politics.
Netanyahu also claimed the Yesh Atid leader’s late father Yosef “Tommy” Lapid had opposed a similar bill when he was justice minister.
“Lapid, you are a fake democrat. Your father was a real democrat and I follow his path,” Netanyahu said.
Lapid fired back: “We can see the sweat from here. You know, and you’re afraid, that you’ll end up in jail,” Lapid said to Netanyahu. “Your father told you not to touch money [in politics]. If you had listened to him you wouldn’t be facing three criminal cases.”
“If you want to speak about my father, by the way, it is customary to say, ‘May his memory be a blessing,'” added Lapid. Netanyahu held up his hand and nodded to acknowledge the point.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases. He denies any wrongdoing, and has charged without evidence that an alliance of the left, the media, police and state prosecutors are engaged in an attempt at a political coup against him.
Lapid also quoted Netanyahu once saying former prime minister Ehud Olmert was unfit to serve as premier when he was under investigation for graft. He raised the prime minister’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in which Israel has seen surging cases alongside high levels of unemployment.
“You do not want us to talk about 30,000 businesses closed because of your mismanagement,” the Yesh Atid leader said, directly addressing the prime minister.
“The fact that Israel’s economy is in the worst position in the Western world because of your mismanagement. You do not want us to talk about your failure.”
The vote came as Blue and White chief Benny Gantz recovered in hospital after back surgery for an injury sustained during his time in the Israel Defense Forces.
Earlier, the Knesset passed in its preliminary reading a bill to grant the government more time to pass the contested national budget. The bill passed 56-41, but its fate in three future votes that are required for it to become law remains mired in the very same coalition disputes and wrangling that have prevented the budget from being passed in time.
If new elections are called, they would be the fourth since April 2019. Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to create an emergency unity government in May due to the pandemic, after three consecutive rounds of elections failed to yield a clear winner.