AnalysisElection battle continues, and to hell with public interest

Why Israel’s politicians shuttered the Knesset just when Israelis needed it most

And why neither Likud nor Blue and White can claim the moral high ground in an impasse that sees the president imploring the speaker to get MKs back to work and serving democracy

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-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)
Then-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)

It’s been a bad week for most Israelis. Children are out of school, businesses have shuttered, and hundreds of thousands of families face the loss of one or both incomes as the social, educational and economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates. On Tuesday, Finance Ministry budgets chief Shaul Meridor warned there won’t be enough bailout money for everyone, leaving the country’s half a million self-employed and small businesses to wonder if there will be any pieces left to pick up when it’s all over.

Yet, even as the Israeli economy grinds to a halt and the pandemic threatens to claim its first deaths among Israelis, the response of the country’s politicians has seemed startlingly detached. A squabble over Knesset procedure has shut down parliament – the very parliament that might pass funding bills to help those desperate families, or might create meaningful oversight and limits on unprecedentedly intrusive new cyber tracking policies put in place to help stem the spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud has dug in his heels, saying earlier this week he won’t step down to allow a vote for a new speaker, even though he no longer represents a majority of the new parliament. And he doesn’t have to. Knesset bylaws say a new speaker doesn’t have to be chosen until a new government is approved. Let Blue and White’s Benny Gantz present a government for the parliament’s approval, says Edelstein, and I’ll allow a vote to replace me.

But it’s not merely Edelstein’s stubborn clinging to his chair that has shuttered the parliament. He won’t allow any plenum votes at all – not to establish the Finance Committee to begin to respond to the looming economic catastrophe, not to form the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to oversee the new tracking regime introduced on Wednesday, and not to set up the “corona committee” demanded by Blue and White to oversee and coordinate the country’s response to the pandemic.

Edelstein has an explanation for his extraordinary intransigence. He says he fears for the wellbeing of the Knesset’s esteemed members. While Israel’s Health Ministry has issued emergency directives forbidding all Israelis from gathering with more than a handful of people, the Knesset plenum consists of 120 members who would normally get together in a single hall to vote on the new speaker (not to mention the new government, new committees and new budgets for those stuck in a coronavirus-induced economic emergency).

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is tested for fever outside the Knesset on March 16, 2020 (Adina Valman/Knesset spokespersons’ office)

After all, four members of Knesset – two from each side of the aisle – entered home quarantine this week, while Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, citing his advanced age (71), notified Edelstein he would not be visiting the parliament building anytime soon.

Still, even though the coronavirus concern is real, the excuse is transparently absurd. As the Knesset’s three-at-a-time swearing in on Monday demonstrated, the plenum vote can take place piecemeal, with a small handful of MKs voting at any given time. It would be a slow, laborious process, but it would be legal. The existence of the piecemeal option empties Edelstein’s excuse of any validity.

In fact, if the coronavirus fear were the driving factor, Edelstein would now be hard at work changing Knesset bylaws to allow MKs to convene over video conference or other technologies and to vote in absentia in plenum and committee votes. Such a change would require at least 14 days to implement (there are strict rules preventing fast changes to parliamentary procedures), but it would allow the Knesset two weeks hence to better deal with the emergency no matter who ends up in the speaker’s or prime minister’s chairs.

None of those steps are being taken, because the current freeze is not about the virus. It’s about grinding the parliament to a halt in order to prevent Blue and White from taking it over with their 61-seat majority.

No wonder that Blue and White has railed against Edelstein’s intransigence, calling it “an assault on democracy.” A government elected three Knessets ago is freezing parliament amid a public health emergency while passing draconian new surveillance measures with no meaningful oversight. Isn’t that enough cause for concern, even for those who don’t hope to see Benny Gantz as the next prime minister?

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on January 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sensing he and his allies were losing the debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pivoted on Wednesday evening, claiming in a Channel 12 interview that Likud had frozen the parliamentary committee-forming process because Gantz planned to appoint a member of the Arab Joint List party as chair of one of the new committees.

This, too, is exceedingly hard to take at face value. For one thing, the Joint List already chaired a committee in the last functioning Knesset – the 20th, three Knessets ago for those keeping track – and now has more seats than it had then. Barring a fundamental change to the Knesset’s bylaws and procedures, it would be exceedingly difficult for any prime minister to deny the Joint List a committee chair if the party desires one.

So what’s really going on? Why the unprecedented foot-dragging, the dissembling and posturing? What could possibly be so important to Netanyahu and Edelstein that might justify freezing the parliament’s work during so vast and obvious an emergency?

The answer sheds light on Israeli politicians’ priorities, and on why Blue and White, ostensibly the passive player in this melodrama, is culpable too in preventing the Knesset from getting to work.

President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive at the swearing in ceremony of the 23rd Knesset (Haim Zach/Mark Neyman/GPO)

While Rome burns

Beneath the façade and posturing, the fear-mongering and dissembling, a single question – seemingly marginal and procedural — occupies the minds of both parties’ leaders: How many representatives will each have in the Knesset Arrangements Committee?

After each election, the new Knesset — by plenum vote — establishes an Arrangements Committee, a powerful instrument for deciding how the new parliament will function, and decides how many members will sit on it. The committee determines which parliamentary committees will be formed at the outset and who will staff them.

It therefore decides who controls the parliamentary timetable and can advance legislation, including urgent budget bills or proposed changes to electoral law. One such electoral change currently on the books at the behest of Blue and White: a prohibition against an indicted MK like Netanyahu being selected as the next prime minister-designate.

In other words, control of the Arrangements Committee will de facto decide whether Blue and White has the votes and legislative levers to push Netanyahu out of the race. It is Blue and White’s surest path to the premiership.

There’s just one problem: The Knesset’s two blocs are so close in size, Gantz’s majority so narrow and tenuous, that the parliamentary calculus set down in law that determines who ends up in control of the Arrangements Committee depends on one small detail – the size of the committee.

The arithmetic is complex, but stay with me: By law the Arrangements Committee must contain at least one Knesset member from each faction larger than four seats, with additional members added according to each faction’s total size.

Disinfecting the Knesset ahead of the swearing in of MKs amid the coronavirus crisis, March 16, 2020 (Knesset spokeswoman)

In the current Knesset, that means that the Arrangements Committee must have at least 8 members – one for each faction.

But what happens if the 23rd Knesset decides to form a nine-member committee? Who gets the extra seat? The answer: the party whose total number of MKs divided by the committee’s size returns the highest non-whole remainder. That is, the faction with the most unrepresented MKs.

For example, if the Arrangements Committee were to have 30 members, that would create a simple equation of 1 seat for every 4 MKs. Likud’s 36 MKs would thus have 9 representatives on the committee, Blue and White’s 32 MKs would have 8 – while the Joint List’s 15 MKs would be represented by just 3 members, with the three remaining MKs not counted toward a member. Now increase the committee size by one to 31, and it is the Joint List, with its 0.75-representative remainder, that gets the additional seat on the committee.

The new seats are calculated by faction, not by bloc, so eight different counters are running simultaneously, and seemingly random committee sizes lean toward either Gantz (an additional seat to Labor-Meretz, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu or the Joint List) or Netanyahu (an added seat for Shas, UTJ, Yamina or Likud).

(Sorry about that; I did warn you.)

Edelstein’s coronavirus excuse was not born in the need to stop the plenum from voting him out, but in the more important fight over the Arrangements Committee’s size. It would be unsafe, he has argued, to have a committee of 10 or more people during an epidemic. Coincidentally, a committee with 8 or 9 members would favor Netanyahu.

Blue and White, meanwhile, demanded a 27-member committee, because the math favored Gantz – that is, until MK Orly Levy-Abekasis announced she was leaving the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance to form a single-seat faction. One seat gives her almost no influence in the new Knesset, but tilts the Arrangements Committee math slightly toward Netanyahu, enough to make 27 an untenable size for Gantz. Blue and White then changed its demand to a 17-member committee.

Labor-Gesher party co-chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis at faction meeting at the Knesset on November 11, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90 )

Likud, fearing it will be steamrolled by an Arrangements Committee with a Gantz-backing majority, has held its ground. Edelstein won’t allow a plenum vote in part because plenum votes could change the arrangements rules in Gantz’s favor.

Meanwhile Likud is trying to use the only ace in its deck – Edelstein – to force Blue and White to negotiate the first round of committee assignments before being given control of those committees.

Days of stalemated talks have centered on the question, as the pandemic raged and the economy began to sink.

A bitter irony on both sides

An Israeli election, it is often noted, is not won at the ballot box, but in the coalition wrangling that follows. And by that measure, Israel’s election is still in full swing.

Gantz is maneuvering to take control of the Arrangements Committee in order to advance laws that would remove Netanyahu from the race.

Netanyahu, in turn, has thrown up parliamentary barricades in Gantz’s path, to slow his advance.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, elbow bumps Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

There is a bitter irony on both sides.

Gantz is charging headlong into a brick wall. If he manages to pass the legislation disqualifying Netanyahu from retaining the premiership, he is almost certainly dooming the unity government option with Netanyahu’s Likud. That would likely condemn Gantz’s government to a parliamentary minority dependent on anti-Zionist lawmakers from the Joint List. This would be a government resented, even opposed, by some of Gantz’s own party members – and would place him and Blue and White in a deeply uncomfortable position from which to mount the next election campaign.

Gantz needs Netanyahu if he is to lead the kind of broad-based, uncompromised government he actually wants to lead. That simple fact of parliamentary math suggests he does not see the bills to disqualify Netanyahu as ends in themselves, but as negotiating chips meant to force Netanyahu to acquiesce to Gantz going first in a rotation agreement.

But to have that leverage, he must be able to threaten Netanyahu with viable legislation before his 28 to 42 days as prime minister-designate are up.

Or put another way, Gantz seems willing to keep the parliament closed until Likud lets him have his way in the Arrangements Committee, securing him the upper hand in coalition talks down the road.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz attends a mayors’ conference in Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem, on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

No wonder, then, that Edelstein has made it his life’s mission to delay Gantz, even at the cost of shutting down all parliamentary work during a national emergency. He, too, has proved he is willing to play that same game with Israelis’ wellbeing.

Ironically, Netanyahu also faces a political clock. Israel’s coronavirus response has probably been among the best in the world thus far, but questions are mounting about the healthcare system’s overall preparedness and effectiveness in responding to the crisis. And that’s before the virus has begun to take a serious toll. Israelis are about to face a painful medical and economic whirlwind, and the downturn is extremely likely to hurt the politician who has led the state for the past 11 years.

And it is Netanyahu (through his agent Edelstein), not Gantz, who is now being blamed for delaying the Knesset’s work. The longer he postpones the passage of a state budget and various legislative initiatives that could help in the fight against the virus, the deeper the crisis is likely to grow. There is a point at which Netanyahu’s obstruction of Gantz will start to hurt Netanyahu more than Gantz, since it is Netanyahu who will be blamed for the damage that is to come.

Where will it end?

Can Netanyahu ride out Gantz’s term as PM-designate while neither conceding control of the Knesset nor incurring popular wrath over the standstill?

Can Gantz assert sufficient control over parliament, and do it fast enough, to force Netanyahu to agree to a second-place slot in his government?

It’s an unpleasant stand-off, and it may yet turn into a dangerous one. President Reuven Rivlin is already imploring Edelstein to reopen parliament, and fast, to ensure no further harm to Israeli democracy.

But no one in the Knesset’s half-empty halls doubts that the impasse, however complex it may seem, is over something straightforward and central: It is nothing less than a continuation of the March 2 vote by other means, on the part of two political parties that seem unfazed by the damage they are causing to the vital interests of the public they claim to serve.

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