The Knesset Speaker's Curious Flip-flop on the MK Suspension Law

Edelstein first expressed staunch opposition to the legislation but had to walk back his comments after an angry call from Netanyahu. He has his future to consider Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to tap a new national security adviser Likud is mired in intra-party conflicts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, February 10, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The so-called “suspension law,” by which it would be possible to eject errant MKs from the House – which Netanyahu wants to promote, or wants to give the impression of promoting – did not move ahead this week. Indeed, it suffered a regression. The crystal-clear statement by President Reuven Rivlin expressing opposition to the legislation for its potential deleterious effect on Israeli democracy destabilized the idea’s already flimsy constitutional foundations. It’s hard to find a serious legal expert who will support a mechanism by which MKs expel their lawfully elected peers.

For a moment it seemed as if the legislation had been aborted, after Channel 2 broadcast remarks by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a high-level meeting this week between Israeli and American officials under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute: “No such bill will be submitted as long as I am speaker,” he said. “There is no such legislation, but if something like it appears it will not be submitted to the Knesset.”

If Edelstein, a Netanyahu loyalist, comes out publicly against the idea, it can be written off. But an hour after the newscast, the speaker got an angry call from Netanyahu, who had just returned from Berlin. Again Netanyahu’s favorite pastime – making trips abroad – had been spoiled. He can’t scold Rivlin (he tried it once and received an appropriate Zionist response from the president, who owes him nothing) – but he can certainly blast Edelstein.

“What have you done?” a furious Netanyahu asked Edelstein, who was busy packing for a visit to Montenegro and Albania. Edelstein explained that he was referring to the original version of the bill, which enabled MKs to be expelled for “unbecoming” or “improper” behavior. He said he had no problem with the amended version – which has been on the agenda for at least a week, and mentions support for terrorism, undermining Israel as a democracy and so on as possible reasons for expulsion from the parliament.

Netanyahu immediately issued a press release in which he called the insurgents to order.

Aides to Edelstein – whose trip was also ruined – launched a marathon of clarifications. In fact, the full text of his remarks this week shows that he apparently really was referring to the original version of the bill, though it’s not clear why, as that wretched formulation was no longer operative when Edelstein spoke, as he surely knew. A participant in the IDI conference said he thought the Knesset speaker was trying to curry favor with the foreign dignitaries sitting with him at the round table: former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, retired U.S. Federal Judge Abraham Sofaer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, and a host of law professors, along with former Israeli Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch.

“Yuli put on a helluva show,” the participant said. “He was the most vehement of everyone against the legislation. People looked at him admiringly.”

In a phone conversation from Albania, Edelstein explained that he was in fact referring to the original text, but that he could live, somehow, with the revised version, although he intends to propose reservations, such as the need for a majority of around 70 MKs to enact the legislation, not 61. I asked him about the principle by which MKs do not expel other MKs. “That is indeed a weighty constitutional issue that must be addressed,” he replied. “Let’s say that every time a right-wing MK takes the podium he says, ‘A good Arab is a dead Arab, we have to kill all the Arabs.’ Is it conceivable that the Knesset would not take action against him?”

I said that would be incitement to murder and the attorney general could indict. Not necessarily, Edelstein replied: “That MK spoke in the Knesset and enjoys substantive immunity. It is the Knesset that must act. I will not allow police to enter the chamber and arrest MKs.”

I reminded him that when MK Meir Kahane said something similar against the Arabs, the Supreme Court prohibited him from running again. “True,” Edelstein said, “but when Kahane spoke in the Knesset, almost all the MKs walked out in protest. Do you see that happening today? Left-wing MKs will not walk out when Haneen Zoabi [Joint Arab List] speaks, no matter what she says.”

Edelstein will explain his position to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee next week, navigating between the raindrops, as the saying goes, but he will not emulate Rivlin: He saw what Rivlin’s liberal impartiality as Knesset speaker got him: a humiliating removal (though, happily, more than adequate compensation in the form of the presidency afterward). Edelstein wants to skip the unpleasant part and land safely in the President’s Residence after Rivlin. And Netanyahu can be very nasty to people who torpedo his initiatives, so why look for trouble?

Juggling act

Six weeks ago, when Yossi Cohen was appointed director of the Mossad, the position he’d held until then, head of the National Security Council, fell vacant. The NSC head is the prime minister’s national-security adviser, and the organization he directs is crucial to the functioning of the government. Indeed, Cohen, who went on many secret missions for Netanyahu, was the most important person in the Prime Minister’s Office by a long shot.

Netanyahu doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to find a replacement for Cohen, although he was quick to appoint a successor to Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen, whose term ends in three months. A week ago, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the next Shin Bet chief would be Nadav Argaman. He’s the deputy chief, so no one can claim that he requires a long break-in period.

Netanyahu is devoting precious time to the legislation to oust MKs and to the Eilat casino, two controversial ideas that will probably not even be realized. Meanwhile, the NSC can wait. And the post of head of the National Information Directorate has been vacant since Liran Dan left six months ago (and Netanyahu knew he was leaving at least six months beforehand). No one seems to be waiting in line. There’s also been no cabinet secretary since Avichai Mandelblit took over as attorney general earlier this month.

Still, if the prime minister can also serve as economy and communications minister, and as foreign minister, why shouldn’t he use the spare time he doesn’t have to moonlight in other major staff jobs in his office? It’s no big deal for him.

Corridors of power

If anyone thought Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan were mired in a world war in the top ranks of Likud, think again. A week ago, at a conference of the settlers’ media outlets Arutz Sheva and Besheva, Katz spotted Erdan arriving just as he was concluding a speech, and proceeded to heap praise on him for the work he was doing. If this is what a life-and-death battle between two potential contenders for the Likud crown looks like – there really is nothing to look forward to.

Meanwhile, Erdan has been congratulating Katz publicly for his achievements in changing the face of the country’s transportation infrastructure. And a few months ago, Katz suggested to Erdan that he run for leadership of the Likud Central Committee with his support. Erdan thought it over and said no. Katz, who was determined to see anyone but Netanyahu’s candidate, MK Tzachi Hanegbi, in the post, turned to his old ally, Social Welfare Minister Haim Katz (no relation) – who defeated Hanegbi.

Without attaching too much significant to this inter-bloc warming, a Katz-Erdan alliance could easily justify a powwow around the dinner table in the Balfour Street residence. Netanyahu has enjoyed broad, exclusive control in Likud since his arrival in the party’s leadership. Before that, Likud resembled present-day Syria, sliced up and ruled by warring factions. The main reason for Netanyahu’s unchallenged power is the absence of an agreed-upon candidate to challenge him.

Nor is Netanyahu worried even now. If Katz is flirting with Erdan, it’s because he believes the latter has been in decline in the past year, since he became public security minister. The conflict of interest between them is in-built, both at present and in the distant future, in the rivalry to become foreign minister.

Another intra-party conflict that’s preoccupying Likud erupted when Netanya Mayor Miriam Feierberg fired a municipal employee who is also a bigwig in the local party branch. Feierberg, an 18-year veteran whose popularity in her city rivals that of Queen Elizabeth in Britain, knew she was opening the gates of hell. But she’s also a kind of local Iron Lady.

The local Likud folks, who wield power in the central committee, requested that the party impose a de facto boycott on Netanya, avoiding official visits to the city or meetings with its mayor. Most in the party acquiesced.

Last week, however, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, invited Feierberg, at the latter’s request, to a working meeting. When the mayor arrived, she discovered that her bitter rivals from the hostile Likud branch were also there. Regev then cordially suggested that they all hold at least the first part of the meeting together, to streamline matters.

Feierberg refused. “This is a professional work meeting. They can’t come in,” she informed Regev. “Just for five minutes, that’s all,” implored Regev. “Not even for one minute,” Feierberg told her.

“What do you care?” queried Regev.

“I’m the one who decides which municipal employees come to a working meeting on municipal matters,” said Feierberg, raising her voice.

“I’m the one who decides who participates in meetings in my office,” Regev shouted back.

Feierberg was now burning with anger. She gathered up her things and her staff, and headed back to the city of diamonds – no working, no meeting.

She seemed to believe that Regev had set an ambush for her.

But Regev’s office denies that categorically. What happened was a coincidence: By chance the gang from the Netanya Likud branch was invited to a meeting with Regev that had been scheduled to be held just before Feierberg’s arrival. And just by chance, unfortunately, Regev fell far behind in her schedule that day, so that when Feierberg arrived for her meeting, the Likud activists were still waiting for theirs to begin. Feierberg’s anger was misplaced and inappropriate.

Feierberg declined to comment, but senior municipal officials claim that Minister Regev pulled a fast one on the mayor: By inviting the Likud people for “even five minutes,” she wanted to create the impression that if Netanya does benefit from budgets or assistance from the Culture Ministry, the people to thank will be the three Likud functionaries.