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The Knesset approved yesterday in its first reading the government-backed bill that would make it possible for seven Knesset members to split off from an existing faction and form a new one. The bill, which has been referred to as the "Mofaz Law," after Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz, passed 62 to 47.

Existing law requires at least one-third of the total number of MKs in any faction to agree to withdraw from it for them to be permitted to to form a separate parliamentary bloc.

Mofaz spoke in the Knesset yesterday and harshly attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is behind the proposed law. The bill is perceived as part of Netanyahu's attempt to lure Mofaz and his supporters in Kadima into leaving their party and joining - or in the case of Mofaz rejoining - the Likud.

The bill will be brought before the Knesset House Committee today to prepare it for its second and third readings, which are expected to take place Wednesday.

"Mister Prime Minister, I want to remind you of something you seem to have forgotten: Israel is a democratic country. You are not living in Cuba, and Israeli citizens are not citizens of North Korea," Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, said yesterday, addressing the Knesset.

"Here the prime minister respects the Knesset, respects the laws of the land and respects the public," Mofaz told Netanyahu, who absented himself from the Knesset floor while Mofaz spoke. "The time has come for you to behave like a prime minister and not like a lowly political wheeler-dealer," Mofaz told Netanyahu. "I am trying to understand how a person like you, intelligent, learned, who studied in a country that sanctifies democratic values, allows himself to bring such a bill to a vote," added Mofaz. "I have no answer. Maybe it is because you think you are allowed to do anything. Maybe it is because you reached the conclusion that you have to survive at any price," he said.

"At first you invented government ministries and passed out honors at the public's expense and managed to build a coalition, but you didn't think a coalition has to be preserved. You also didn't think that every coalition member would do whatever they felt like. After you realized that you had no chance of preserving the coalition, you decided to bend [the rules] of democracy."

During the vote, a number of Kadima MKs were removed from the plenum after they mockingly donned face masks and disrupted the process a number of times. "True, this is an act that does not fall in the realm of a normal parliamentary tool, but the stench that emanates from Netanyahu's laws of survival calls for such a drastic step," Kadima MK Yoel Hasson said: "The entire public needs to know what kind of bad smell is wafting from the Knesset today."

Mofaz said the efforts to pass legislation that would facilitate his entry into the government after a split from his party were being waged against his wishes.

"Too many good people have fought for the democratic face of this country, people that I value and admire ... There is no chance that I will help you or anyone else to trample the democratic face of the state," Mofaz told Netanyahu. "If you want to serve in a public position, you have to act accordingly." Mofaz said those who hide behind the label of the "Mofaz Law" are cowards. "It saddens me that in the most important group of people in the state, there are those who decided to act in a manner that is unbecoming of an officer and a soldier," Mofaz said, reminding everyone of his days at the top of the IDF.

After Mofaz finished speaking, Kadima chairwoman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni came up to him, shook his hand and congratulated him. In a conversation between the two a few minutes later, Livni told him: "I appreciate what you said since it was right, sharp, to the point and serves Kadima." Mofaz, who usually draws little praise from his fellow Kadima colleagues, also earned a hug and kiss at the end of his speech from the faction's whip, MK Dalia Itzik.

In the past, Mofaz had criticized Livni for her refusal to join Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition. His dissatisfaction at remaining in opposition, aides to Netanyahu believe, renders him a candidate for breaking away from Kadima and leading a splinter faction into Netanyahu's government.

The vote on the bill was a roll call and not the ususal electronic voting. The Knesset debate was run by Deputy Knesset Speaker Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu) after Speaker Reuven Rivlin chose to absent himself from the vote because of his opposition to the law.

After the coalition's failure last week to pass its proposed reform of the Israel Lands Administration, Netanyahu pulled out all stops to prevent a loss in yesterday's vote. Among other things, Netanyahu imposed party discipline on his Likud faction - meaning MKs who fail to support the bill could be penalized. He has also threatened to fire any minister or deputy minister - from any coalition party - who voted against the "Mofaz Bill."