Israel's Parliament Sworn In, but Paralyzed Due to Coronavirus, Political Spat

Gantz's party blame Netanyahu and Knesset speaker, who they say 'shut down the Knesset because he doesn't have a majority'

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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The opening session of the 23rd Knesset, conducted with only three lawmakers allowed in the room at a time, March 16, 2020.
The opening session of the 23rd Knesset, conducted with only three lawmakers allowed in the room at a time, March 16, 2020.Credit: Gideon Sharon/Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Though the 23rd Knesset was sworn in Monday, in 40 batches of three lawmakers at a time, a combination of political wrangling and the coronavirus epidemic has left it paralyzed and so far unable to function.

Members have yet to be appointed to Knesset committees, including crucial ones like the special committee on the handling of the coronavirus outbreak, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Knesset Finance Committee.

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No legal arrangement has been found to allow the Knesset to hold a vote while complying with the Health Ministry directive prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people.

The arrangements committee, a key vehicle for Knesset activity between an election and the formation of a new government, has yet to be established due to disputes between the right-wing and center-left blocs.

Kahol Lavan, whose chairman, Benny Gantz, was tasked with forming a government on Monday, cast blame Tuesday on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. They claim that Edelstein, egged on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had effectively shut down parliament, both to prevent a vote to replace him as speaker and the passage of legislation that would disqualify Netanyahu from forming a government while under indictment.

“Currently, the only functioning institution in the country is the unelected caretaker government, with a prime minister who lost the election,” charged Yair Lapid, number two on Kahol Lavan’s slate. “Because he has no Knesset majority, he shut down the Knesset. Because he was supposed to stand trial, he shut down the courts.”

Gantz spoke with Edelstein on Tuesday and urged him to allow the Knesset to function. “This is a dangerous situation, in which they’re trying to abolish the legislature and leave only the executive,” Gantz warned prior to that conversation. “The Likud party, at the behest of Netanyahu and Edelstein, is trying at any price to prevent the Knesset from functioning.”

A major battle is over the composition of the arrangements committee. A tense meeting in Edelstein’s office on the subject yielded no agreements.

Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan demanded that the arrangements committee contain 17 members, with proportionate representation from each party in Knesset. Likud insisted that every committee contain only 10 members – a number that would effectively neutralize the center-left bloc’s slight numerical edge – in order to comply with the Health Ministry’s directive.

“We’d be happy to set up committees of up to 10 members, in line with the Health Ministry’s instructions,” Miki Zohar of Likud wrote on Twitter in response to Lapid’s comments. “The public’s health is above all else, including your bottomless hatred of the prime minister.”

Tuesday’s plenum session was also negligible: Newly sworn in lawmakers were given a chance to make brief speeches to an empty hall.

Edelstein shrugged off the criticism and blamed other parties for the crisis. He said he is working to solve it and is considering exceptional measures to enable committees to be established.

“My hope is that we’ll reach agreements,” he told lawmakers. “If we can’t agree, then despite all the problems, and despite the fact that this has never before happened in the Knesset’s history, I’ll bring the issue to the plenum for a vote. We won’t remain without an arrangements committee. Without it, it’s impossible to form either a temporary Finance Committee or a temporary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.”

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