Israeli Lawmakers Are Trying to Rattle the Coalition With Embarrassing Bills

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From left: Then Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, PM Netanyahu, Knesset whip Miki Zohar, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.
From left: Then Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, PM Netanyahu, Knesset whip Miki Zohar, Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Several controversial bills are expected to be brought to a Knesset vote this week, ramping up already high tensions for Israel's governing coalition.

Not only is the conflict over the budget still raging, but the right-wing Yamina alliance is threatening to embarrass Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud by presenting a bill allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings.

In addition, the opposition Yesh Atid-Telem faction is demanding that Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan vote to set up a special committee to probe Israel's controversial purchase of naval vessels from Germany.

The bill overriding High Court rulings

From left: Yamina lawmakers Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 8, 2020. Credit: Adina Waldman / Knesset Spokesperson

Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism announced Sunday that they planned to provide the coalition with a “safety net,” making it clear that they will not support the circumventing the High Court, essentially foiling an effort by Yamina to push it through on Wednesday. They also declared that they were committed to “the endurance of the coalition and preventing elections,” meaning they would not cooperate with any party seeking to undermine the coalition agreement.

In theory, both Likud and the Haredi parties support the override bill. But Kahol Lavan is opposed, and has veto power. Yamina’s attempt to push its own private member's bill, sponsored by lawmaker and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, is apparently an effort to try to lure right-wing lawmakers to break coalition discipline or embarrass them by forcing them to vote against it.

“Likud supports legislating an override clause, that’s clear to everyone,” Likud lawmaker Osnat Mark tweeted. “But the weekly harassment by Shaked and her friends from the opposition benches don’t work anymore.”

Nevertheless, people in Kahol Lavan are worried that Likud lawmakers will indeed break ranks and vote in favor of Shaked’s bill. Since this is a preliminary vote, the results are largely symbolic, but they could serve to increase the dissension among coalition members. “It’s not over till it’s over,” said a Kahol Lavan source of the efforts to reduce tensions.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar has played a major role in fanning the flames. After Cyber and Digital Affairs Minister David Amsalem, who is also the cabinet-Knesset liaison, announced that the coalition would not support any legislation that doesn't concern the coronavirus crisis, Zohar on Sunday called on Netanyahu to allow lawmakers to vote in favor of the override bill because that's what Likud voters want.

Under Shaked’s bill, the Knesset, with a majority of 61 MKs, could pass a law that had been struck down by the High Court. The High Court would be allowed to overturn a law only with a two-thirds majority of a panel of at least 11 justices. According to the proposed bill, only those who are directly linked to a certain ruling could petition against it with the High Court.

Shaked views the bill as "a special opportunity for lawmakers from the right-wing bloc to stop whining and stop judicial piracy.” If the bill is voted down, it can be presented again only in six months.

A demonstrator holding an Egypt flag stands on a mock submarine with Hebrew that reads, "corruption ship," during a protest against Netanyahu, near his private residence in Caesarea, Israel, July 20, Credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

The so-called 'submarine affair'

Dozens of Israeli defense officials told the High Court the purchase of submarines and missile boats from German industrial group ThyssenKrupp was unnecessary, contradicting claims made by Netanyahu and his associates.

The officials’ statements, filed by the court following a petition calling to reopen an investigation into alleged corruption in the so-called “submarine affair,” were revealed on Friday by Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. They reinforce the claim that Netanyahu and his associates made decisions that were contrary to the defense establishment’s needs, pointing to pressure exerted by the prime minister to promote the huge deal.

Yesh Atid-Telem announced Sunday that it planned to bring to a vote on Wednesday a bill to set up a special inquiry committee to probe the procurement of the naval vessels. This was one of the campaign promises made by Gantz, and so the bill seeks to embarrass Kahol Lavan. A previous attempt by Yesh Atid to advance the issue failed; in June the Knesset State Control Committee, which is headed by Yesh Atid lawmaker Ofer Shelah, voted against asking the state comptroller to investigate the submarine affair.

The committee would investigate two deals Israel signed with ThyssenKrupp some five years ago – one to buy three submarines for 1.5 billion euros, and another to buy missile ships to protect Israel’s offshore gas fields for 430 million euros. Several senior officers, civil servants and associates of Netanyahu have been charged with bribery over these deals, but the premier was never investigated as a suspect in the case.

Last year, Gantz demanded the establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the deals, calling them “the worst case of defense-related corruption in Israel’s history” and accusing Netanyahu of “enabling trafficking in our security for the sake of personal profit.” 

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, another leading Kahol Lavan member, said at the time that such a commission should also look into how Netanyahu approved Germany’s sale of submarines to Egypt “without informing the defense minister or the military chief of staff.”

The bill banning LGBTQ conversion therapy

According to the agreement reached between Amsalem and Nissenkorn, all members of the coalition are supposed to oppose both proposals on Wednesday. But in recent weeks, both Likud and Kahol Lavan lawmakers have violated similar agreements. For example, Likud lawmakers voted in favor of setting up a parliamentary inquiry committee to examine conflicts of interest among Supreme Court justices, while Kahol Lavan and Labor lawmakers supported a bill that bans conversion therapy for members of the LGBTQ community.

After the anti-conversion therapy bill passed its preliminary reading two weeks ago, United Torah Judaism announced it was no longer committed to coalition discipline and would itself submit an override bill for a vote, along with a bill that would forbid bringing leavened food into hospitals on Passover, which is forbidden according to Jewish law. Shas, the other ultra-Orthodox party in the Knesset, announced two weeks ago that it was boycotting the Knesset plenum until further notice.

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