Netanyahu’s Party Drops Controversial Knesset Vote After Attempt to Embarrass Rivals

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Miki Zohar
Miki ZoharCredit: Dani Shem Tov / Knesset Spokesperson.
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's midnight deadline to form a government is all but certain to expire with no breakthrough in coalition talks, a lawmaker from his party sought Tuesday to use a key Knesset meeting to embarrass Netanyahu's rivals with several controversial votes – but ended up dropping major proposals.

During the heated debate at the influential Arrangements Committee, right-wing party leaders opposing Netanyahu played down the significance of the votes, and still backed some of them.

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Likud's Miki Zohar, the committee's chairman, decided not to push through the party's central legislation – a bill that would change the electoral system and force a direct vote for prime minister – an initiative floated by Netanyahu and his allies in a bid to end the political deadlock.

It would have gone before the Knesset for a vote as soon as Wednesday.

Another key proposal, to undo the rotation deal for prime minister signed between Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz last year, was also dropped, with Zohar admitting passing it was "unfeasible."

It seemed that Zohar, who chairs the powerful panel that governs the legislature until a new government is formed, sought to embarrass the right-wing parties, which strive to replace Netanyahu, and cause a rift between them and the center-left.

Zohar apparently hoped the flurry of new legislation would place Netanyahu’s right-wing rivals in an awkward position, having to choose between opposing Likud's efforts in the committee and going back on their previous support for many of the measures being advanced.

Yamina head Naftali Bennett, New Hope leader Gideon Sa'ar and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman are all perceived as Netanyahu's political adversaries and are traditionally part of Israel's right-wing bloc.

Bennett's Yamina said in a statement it would vote in favor of "ideological bills that are important to the right wing," but stressed all bills up for vote on Tuesday still have several more rounds of voting before they are written into law, and the party "can advance or stop it at any moment."

While 45 days are required before a tabled bill can be brought before the full Knesset, Zohar has pledged to expedite the process. The list of bills Likud presented pretain to many right-wing core issues, including a bill revoking the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, the death penalty for terrorist offenses, and legislation that would let lawmakers overrule High Court of Justice rulings. 

Despite Likud remaining the largest party in the Knesset, Netanyahu has alienated a growing number of former allies, strengthening the legislature’s anti-Netanyahu bloc and stymying his chances of remaining in power.

Netanyahu has been pushing for direct elections since April, presenting it as a way of breaking out of the ongoing political stalemate. If the bill passed the committee, it would allow Netanyahu to retain power following four inconclusive rounds of balloting since April 2019. 

He has also asserted, incorrectly, that such a change would allow him to bypass the requirement of obtaining the support of a parliamentary majority in order to form a coalition.

Last month, Shas party head and Netanyahu ally Arye Dery began publicly promoting the idea on the prime minister’s behalf, bringing up the issue in discussions with Yamina head Naftali Bennett. Likud was subsequently reported to have offered United Arab List chief Mansour Abbas the position of deputy Knesset speaker in exchange for supporting the measure. 

Israel experimented with a direct vote for prime minister in the late nineties but reverted to the current system, in which the premier is the leader of the party which has successfully formed a coalition, after only three elections.

Should Netanyahu fail to form a coalition by midnight, President Reuven Rivlin will then have the option of either tasking another lawmaker to attempt to cobble together a coalition or to return the mandate to the Knesset, allowing any lawmaker able to garner the support of 61 lawmakers to become prime minister.

The latter option would likely lead to a fifth round of elections and Rivlin is expected to ask Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid to form a government.

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