Israel Election: Netanyahu Challengers’ Dramatic Moves Put on Ice as Bennett Remains Undecided

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Naftali Bennett speaks to supporters on Election Night, last month.
Naftali Bennett speaks to supporters on Election Night, last month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The members of the new Knesset will be sworn in on Tuesday. The results of the election were inconclusive, and with no one knowing if Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett will join a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or with his rivals, the anti-Netanyahu bloc’s plans to take power are on hold.

Three dramatic moves were meant to restrain Netanyahu as head of the transitional government, and make it significantly more difficult for him to function: 1) Appointment of an opposition Knesset speaker; 2) Forming a majority in the “arrangements committee” that manages the activities of the Knesset during the transition; 3) Passing a law intended to stop Netanyahu from running for premier again while under indictment.

“At the moment there is no majority for these steps,” conceded an official in one of the parties in the “bloc for change.” According to the official, “As of now, as long as Naftali Bennett is sitting on the fence, there is no answer to the simple question of who’s in the coalition and who’s in the opposition. As long as he doesn’t reveal his decision, the balance of power in the Knesset is unclear and it’s impossible to set up the Knesset committees according to coalition and opposition.”

Bennett was expected to meet with Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid on Sunday or Monday and inform him of his decision. Meanwhile, the Knesset was waiting to hear what New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar had to say on Sunday evening when he was due to announce his decision. Alongside both of them, the decisions of the United Arab List will impact the ability to navigate in the Knesset in in the days to come.

Appointment of Knesset speaker

One of the most important moves could be the appointment of a Knesset speaker from among Netanyahu’s rivals. The speaker can derail legislation that the prime minister wants to pass and take over the legislature’s agenda. Over the past few days the name of Yesh Atid lawmaker Meir Cohen has been mentioned in the Knesset corridors as a possible candidate, alongside less likely scenarios, including the appointment of Gideon Sa’ar or Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked. The replacement of the current speaker, MK Yariv Levin, a faithful follower of Netanyahu, could stop one possible plan that has been preoccupying the Knesset over the past few days: postponing the presidential election, and having President Reuven Rivlin step down, to be temporarily replaced by Levin. (The Knesset speaker fills the role of acting president in the absence of the president.)

Such a move would give Netanyahu a foothold in the Presidential Residence, and pave the way for Likud to obtain a mandate to form the new government if there is a fifth election, and, under extraordinary circumstances, to increase Netanyahu’s chances of receiving a pardon in the future.

Taking over the arrangements committee

The arrangements committee is a temporary committee that handles the Knesset agenda until a permanent government is in place. This body has enormous power to advance or impede the work of the various Knesset committees, to promote legislation and approve regulations. A majority for Netanyahu on this committee will allow him to peacefully move ahead his plans in the Knesset, while a majority for the anti-Netanyahu bloc will halt many of his moves.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at Likud headquarters on Election Night, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The president, practically speaking, decides who will serve as chair of the arrangements committee, because the candidate he chooses to form the government can appoint an MK representing him to head the committee. But a dramatic debate among lawmakers is expected in the coming days to decide whether Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc will have a majority on the committee, or whether the bloc for change will be the decider. The heads of the Knesset factions held their first meeting on Sunday morning to attempt to select the committee’s members, but dispersed without reaching any decisions.

At the heart of this debate is the question of the number of representatives each of the 10 parties that won six to nine seats in the Knesset will be able to put on the committee. If each can send a single representative, the right-wing bloc might have a bare majority. If they can each send two representatives, the bloc for change will grow stronger and under certain circumstances can become the deciding factor in the committee’s decisions. Now, everyone’s waiting for Bennett.

Anti-Netanyahu legislation

“I am obligated to do anything to prevent an additional election,” said Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman immediately after the election. According to Lieberman, “The first phase runs through the bill to prevent a Knesset member with an indictment from being a candidate to form a government. I expect that all sides hoping for the change they have been talking about over the past few months to show responsibility and support this bill.”

But not all the party heads in the bloc support Lieberman’s approach. Labor Chairwoman Merav Michaeli prefers to exhaust all possibilities to form a government before launching such tactical moves. An official in the bloc for change said: “Anti-Netanyahu legislation is a secondary and marginal move. It might be a moral achievement but the bottom line is that it might strengthen support for Netanyahu in the next election and give him a majority that would allow him to cancel such laws right after the election, and re-legitimize his candidacy for premier.”

Lawmakers who were present at the meeting of party heads presented other signs of what they said was the unclear conduct of Yamina these days: Faction Chairwoman Shaked did not support a plan that could give the anti-Netanyahu bloc a majority on the arrangements committee, and according to one of those present, she tended to support the position of Likud faction Chairman Miki Zohar. Shaked suggested at the meeting a compromise between the right-wing bloc and the bloc for change, but the MKs turned it down. Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin closed the meeting with a call to Shaked and Joint List MK Walid Taha to agree on a formula for the number of seats on the committee going to the different parties.

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