Netanyahu Tries to Lure Lawmakers to Defect in Hunt for 61 Seats

Despite the sanctions the law imposes on Knesset members who desert their parties, Likud is trying to coax them to defect in an effort to form a majority government

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of right wing parties to build a coalition after the March 2 election, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of right wing parties to build a coalition after the March 2 election, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

With all of the results from Monday’s election reported, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has embarked on a hunt for potential defectors from the anti-Netanyahu bloc in the new Knesset to give Likud the minimum 61 seats required for a majority in parliament.

The current tally leaves Netanyahu’s Likud along with other parties from the outgoing government with 58 seats, three shy of a bare majority.

The law can apply sanctions on defectors abandoning the Knesset parties for which they were elected, sanctions that would significantly curb such MKs ability to function politically. But there are means that Netanyahu might be able to use to lure away lawmakers away from their factions.

Enticing individual Knesset members to join Likud

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't win

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The law imposes strict restrictions on individual Knesset members who leave their parties to join another or to become independent MKs. According to the law, any lawmaker elected this week who quits his or her party but doesn’t resign from the Knesset would not be able to run in the next election on the slate of any party represented in the current Knesset. Such defectors could only run in the next election as a candidate for a new party.

These limitations applied in the past, for example, to Orli Levi-Abekasis, who was elected to the Knesset in 2015 as a Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member. She was not allowed to run as a candidate for any party in the outgoing Knesset in April of last year and instead launched a failed bid to be elected on her new Gesher party’s slate.

Because defectors from the parties in the Knesset elected this week would be severely harmed in their ability to serve in the Knesset after the next election, backbenchers on the lower rungs of their current party might be the most logical targets of a Likud hunt for defectors. But the potential defectors’ low profile would also make it difficult for them to successfully run in the next election as a candidate for a new party.

The defection of individual Knesset members also triggers two other sanctions: Defectors would be barred from being appointed as a cabinet minister or deputy minister in the current Knesset and their current party would lose some state funding, which is based on the number of Knesset members that it has.

Convincing individual lawmakers to vote in favor of a Netanyahu-led government

Candidates for prime minister only need a simple plurality of the vote in support for their government to pave the way for them to be sworn into office, but efforts to convince Knesset members to cast such a vote in violation of their own party’s stance are likely doomed to fail. That’s because the Basic Law on the Knesset provides that Knesset members who vote to support a government in violation of their party’s position, or vote in favor of a no-confidence motion in violation of their party’s stance, are deemed to have automatically resigned from their party if they were given any kind of enticement in exchange for their vote. If no enticement was given in return, the vote is not deemed resignation from the party.

Defecting to an existing party

According to the Basic Law on the Knesset, in advance of an election, a party that runs as part of a joint slate can inform the chairman of the Central Elections Committee in advance that it is running on the slate as a party rather than as individual members. It then has the option to dissolve the joint slate immediately after the election. Among the parties with such status are Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael, which is a component of Kahol Lavan, and Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party, which ran in this week’s Knesset election as part of a joint Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate.

Splintering an existing party

The law permits a third of the members of an existing Knesset party of at least six members to leave the party and to act independently without suffering sanctions.

Defection in exchange for amending the law

If Netanyahu manages to recruit the three defectors that election results show he needs for a 61-seat majority government, he could attempt, even before the government is formed, to have the Knesset pass a bill repealing the existing sanctions. He could also ask the defectors to vote in favor of the repeal.

If he manages to change the law, he could then appoint the defectors as cabinet ministers or deputy ministers and offer them additional future benefits to help them consolidate their political careers, perhaps by agreeing to reserve a spot for them on the Likud slate in the next election.

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