Israel Election: Could This Proposed Bill Spell the End of Netanyahu's Political Career?

Gantz's party is seeking to pass legislation that would bar an indicted lawmaker from forming a government, amid howls of protest from Netanyahu supporters, who say it would nullify the votes of the right wing

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Netanyahu on election night.
Prime Minister Netanyahu on election night, March 2, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The center-left bloc led by Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party is working to have the newly elected Knesset pass legislation that would bar anyone under indictment from serving as prime minister. Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman has said he will support the legislation, which on paper gives it the support of a Knesset majority – 62 votes in the 120-seat parliament.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing indictment in three cases, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.

Here’s what would have to happen for such a bill to become law.

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Would the law have any practical significance?

It probably wouldn’t prevent Netanyahu from remaining prime minister if he manages to put together a governing coalition with even a bare 61-seat majority, because his coalition could then vote to repeal the legislation.

If that’s the case, why try to pass it?

Passing it could benefit Kahol Lavan chairman Gantz, in three ways. It would prevent Netanyahu from forming a minority government, since he would need 61 MKs to repeal the law. It would also give Kahol Lavan a PR boost by demonstrating to the public that Gantz won and Netanyahu lost last week’s Knesset election.

What are the chances of it actually passing?

It’s too early to say. Enacting it now would require several preliminary steps: President Reuven Rivlin would have to ask Gantz to form a government. That would put Kahol Lavan in charge of the special arrangements committee that will oversee the Knesset’s operations until a new government is in place. If Netanyahu’s Likud party were to chair the committee, his supporters would block its passage.

Ostensibly, Gantz has the support of 62 Knesset members, but it’s not clear they will all recommend him as prime minister to President Rivlin. The president has the prerogative to call on another legislator, even someone with fewer recommendations, if that person has a better chance of actually forming a government.

In addition, the bloc consisting of the center-left and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu would apparently have to appoint a new Knesset speaker to prevent the incumbent, Yuli Edelstein, from scuttling Knesset votes on the bill. Lieberman is reportedly interested in having Edelstein ousted to head off any such interference with the bill’s passage.

When can work on passing the bill begin?

First the new Knesset must be sworn in, which will happen on March 16 – Monday of next week. Rivlin must tap someone with forming a government the following day.

What does the draft legislation say?

The bill, an amendment to the Basic Law on the Government, hasn’t yet been drafted, but it could take two possible approaches. Both would bar a Knesset member who has been charged with a crime from forming a government. But it could either take effect immediately or only after the next parliamentary election.

Benny Gantz on election night, Mar. 2, 2020.Credit: דניאל בר און

Why support a bill that would only take effect after the next election?

Both versions have their pluses and minuses from the standpoint of its proponents. Those seeking to have it take effect immediately say this would extricate the political system from its current impasse, because if Netanyahu can no longer be prime minister, his Likud party would have to choose another prime ministerial candidate.

That would enable Kahol Lavan, which refuses to serve under an indicted prime minister, to form a unity government with Likud. But opponents of the approach argue that it would improperly target a single individual and effectively nullify the votes of millions of Israelis who voted for the right-wing bloc.

Supporters of having the bill only take effect after the next election say it would still be an effective means of applying pressure, since Netanyahu would no longer have any incentive to dissolve the Knesset and call a fourth election. And since he doesn’t have a majority to form a government in the newly elected Knesset, he would realize, proponents say, that his only option is to let Likud choose another prime ministerial candidate and form a unity government with Kahol Lavan, while enabling Netanyahu to remain a Knesset member and Likud party chairman.

But others argue that Netanyahu would prefer to perpetuate the current impasse and remain head of a caretaker government until another round of elections is held.

If the law passes and there’s another election, could the next Knesset repeal it?

Any law can be repealed. The question is whether the new Knesset would have the necessary votes to do so. If the law is worded so that a majority of 80 MKs is needed to repeal it, any future prime minister would have trouble securing that majority. But it’s not clear that either the Knesset’s legal adviser or the High Court would support the legality of such a provision. If the law could be repealed by just 61 Knesset members, any prime minister with the 61 Knesset votes needed to form a governing coalition could repeal it.

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