Netanyahu Assumes Veto Power Over Potential Knesset Legislation

Knesset's standing as judicial authority gradually weakening.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Yariv Levin are destroying Ben-Gurion's democratic foundations.Credit: Olivier Fittousi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Beginning Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to assume the power to decide which bills will come to a vote in the Knesset and which will be shelved, in keeping with coalition agreements.

Recent years have seen the standing of the Knesset as the judicial authority reduced; instead of all 120 MKs voting on whether to support or oppose a bill, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which is comprised of representatives of the coalition factions only, is the body that decides whether the coalition will support a bill or not. The Knesset executes the ministerial committee’s decisions and only on rare occasions are lawmakers given freedom to vote their conscience.

Now Netanyahu will be able to prevent bills from coming before the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which means that such bills will not advance to the Knesset plenary.

“Are we for autocracy?” MK Dov Khenin (Joint Arab List) said this week. “When the prime minister finds he is in the minority, he can veto a bill and prevent it from moving ahead, which is completely unacceptable in the democratic concept and the form of government we know.“

Netanyahu’s representative on the Ministerial Committee on Legislation – the man with the authority to veto a bill – is Yariv Levin, tourism minister and public security minister. Levin is also the deputy to committee chairwoman Ayelet Shaked.

Levin told Haaretz he believed he would use the veto very rarely. “I don’t want to make serial use of it,” he said, adding that he and Shaked had “good rapport.”

Sources in Likud explained that Netanyahu had insisted on the veto clause out of concern that Shaked would promote controversial legislation; for example, to weaken the Supreme Court or advance West Bank settlements – legislation that would embarrass Netanyahu by pitting him against the judicial system or the international community. Sources said there was also concern that Shaked would use the committee as leverage to advance the demands of her faction, Habayit Hayehudi.

According to the coalition agreement with Habayit Hayehudi, the justice minister will determine the committee's agenda together with the acting committee chief, to be appointed by the prime minister. If the placeholder asks for a delayed vote, the vote will be delayed until an agreement is reached or the prime minister's decision.

Because the Ministerial Committee on Legislation does not keep minutes of its meetings, the public will have a hard time knowing when Netanyahu has exercised his veto power. Most of the committee’s decisions are not made by ordinary votes but by understandings reached by the various factions and behind-the-scenes deals.

According to Levin, the committee “is much more homogenous than its predecessors,” citing objections voiced in the previous Knesset by Yesh Atid and Hatnuah against bills proposed by Habayit Hayehudi, and vice versa. Levin conceded that “quite a few” bills were decided on in the committee by means of deals and understandings, but that “the number of bills that come up for a vote is so great that not all the bills are decided on in deals.”

On Sunday Shaked will convene the committee for its first regular weekly meeting. Likud has a clear majority on the committee – seven members (Levin, Zeev Elkin, Yuval Steinitz, Gila Gamliel, Miri Regev, Danny Danon and Ofir Akunis); Habayit Hayehudi has two representatives (Shaked and Uri Ariel) and Shas has one (David Azoulay). Kulanu, which is considered oppositional in terms of a number of key right-wing pieces of legislation, has only two representatives on the committee: party chairman Moshe Kahlon and Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai.

Nevertheless, Kahlon has managed to neutralize the ministerial committee’s ability to advance a controversial bill that would allow the Knesset to re-legislate a law that has been struck down by the Supreme Court. He did so by utilizing a clause in the coalition agreement that allows his faction, despite its membership in the coalition, to vote against bills in the Knesset plenum.

Another clause in the coalition agreement states that the nation-state bill, whose extreme form would allow the courts to favor the Jewish nature of the state over its democratic rule, cannot be advanced in the committee without the agreement of Kahlon and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Sources in Likud said last week they believed Levin and Shaked would not promote legislation to weaken the Supreme Court, especially because of Shaked’s desire not to lock horns with the judicial system at this time.

Levin said he believed the main laws that would be promoted in the ministerial committee would be those mentioned in the coalition agreement; for example, a bill to restrict the ability of human rights groups, who rely on contributions from abroad, to raise money for their activities. The bill will probably state that associations that want to claim tax-free status for donations from foreign governments will have to obtain authorization from the defense minister and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

According to a senior Habayit Hayehudi source, this bill “now has a majority in the coalition – even if a party like Kulanu decides to object after it passes the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, the prime minister will bring it again before the cabinet where it is assured a majority. The law will pass in this Knesset term.”

The ministerial committee is also expected to advance legislation that would allow one minister from every faction numbering more than 12 MKs to resign from the Knesset to allow the next person on that faction’s Knesset list to become an MK. Additionally, the bill states that if a minister resigns or is dismissed from the cabinet, he or she would be allowed to return to his or her Knesset seat, and the MK holding it would have to resign.

As for the lack of transparency with which the ministerial committee operates, a source in Likud told Haaretz: “The nature of the committee is that the votes are made in quiet deals. Transparency would only make it difficult to form alliances and move things ahead quietly.”

The source said this was unlikely to change. However, in a surprise move, Habayit Hayehudi faction chairman MK Yinon Magal has proposed a bill requiring transparency by the committee, including the requirement that it keeps and publishes minutes of every meeting.

The agenda in Sunday’s meeting consists mainly of bills proposed by government ministries; bills proposed by MKs will be discussed only at a later date. In fact, the ministers will be voting Sunday on bills that were already approved by the committee; some have even passed their first reading in the Knesset. This practice allows the new Knesset to resume work where the previous Knesset left off.

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