Knesset Can’t Set Up Panel to Probe Left-wing Groups, Legal Adviser Says

Coalition split over setting up such a committee, though three coalition parties – Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisraeli Beiteinu – are all vying to chair such a panel

Israel's security cabinet, October 2017.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The proposal to establish a Knesset committee to investigate left-wing organizations is stalled over differences of opinion among the parties in the government coalition and a sense that ultimately the committee will never be set up, a senior coalition source told Haaretz Wednesday. In addition, the Knesset’s legal adviser has said the Knesset has no authority to set up a committee on such a subject.

The legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, said on Wednesday that the Knesset has no authority to set up a committee of inquiry on such a topic. In a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Yinon said no authority exists permitting a parliamentary committee to conduct what in practice would be an ideological investigation, whether of Israeli civil society groups on the right or the left.

“Civil society entities are entitled to operate with great freedom and minimal interference from state authorities, and then within the relatively constrained legal limitations in the field of freedom of expression and freedom of association,” Yinon wrote. He added that this is true all the more when it comes to a certain type of nonprofit organization identified with positions that typically run counter to those of the current government.

Knesset committees of inquiry are typically set up to address issues that are not dealt with by standing parliamentary committees. In addition to the legal difficulties, there are political obstacles to the convening of a parliamentary committee on left-wing organizations. Three coalition parties – Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisraeli Beiteinu – are all vying to chair such a panel, Haaretz has learned. Coalition sources said concern over a possible worsening of relations among coalition partners provides another reason to scrap the panel.

One Likud source told Haaretz that he thought the idea behind the inquiry, along with other initiatives floated this week, was to divert public attention from police investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After Channel 2 reported that the investigation of the prime minister was resuming, there were leaks to the media about a renewed effort to shut down the new Public Broadcasting Corporation, and about possible legislation to counter groups supposedly acting against the Israel Defense Forces. The coalition is also working on expedited legislation to provide criminal immunity to a serving prime minister.

Parliamentary commissions of inquiry may run into difficulties in summoning experts or others involved in the matters under investigation. Similar to regular Knesset committees, commissions of inquiry cannot require private individuals to appear before it. Only government or other public entities can be required to appear before the committees. And in practice, the Knesset often finds it difficult even to summon public officials to appear.

Both regular Knesset committees and committees of inquiry have the authority to issue subpoenas requiring government officials to appear before them, but this power is almost never invoked and has not been used in recent years even in cases in which officials chose to boycott the sessions they were summoned to.