Two Lawmakers Hiding in the Knesset Parking Garage Sealed the Government's Fate

One from Gantz's party, the other from Netanyahu's, the two surprised their colleagues when they emerged at the last minute and voted against extending the life of the government

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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The Knesset chamber prior to the vote on extending the life of the government.
The Knesset chamber prior to the vote on extending the life of the government, Dec. 21, 2020.Credit: Danny Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset parking garage became the scene of major political drama Monday that is leading the country into its fourth round of election in two years. The garage has in the past served as a regular hiding place for Knesset members seeking to emerge at the last minute to vote – in the process disrupting legislative battle plans.

Nevertheless, when Knesset members Ram Shefa (Kahol Lavan) and Michal Shir Segman (Likud) suddenly emerged in the Knesset chamber to vote on Monday night, they managed to surprise a lot of people.

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For hours, the government coalition and the opposition were having trouble determining whether a bill to prevent the dissolution of the Knesset that would head off new elections would pass. The margin was tight and neither side could predict how – or even if – the “weakest links” in the coalition would vote: Asaf Zamir, Miki Haimovich and Shefa from Kahol Lavan and Likud Knesset members Shir Segman and Sharren Haskel (who have announced their support for a new party headed by Gideon Sa’ar).

Zamir and Haimovich were in the Knesset building Monday but left their colleagues puzzled over how they intended to vote. They told anyone who asked that they had still not made up their minds.

Kahol Lavan Knesset member Ram Shefa in the Knesset chamber, Dec. 21, 2020.Credit: Danny Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

Shefa, who should have been in quarantine after being exposed to a coronavirus carrier, didn’t step into the Knesset building at first. He waited in the garage and his name did not appear on the electronic board showing the Knesset members who were present. Coalition lawmakers thought he had acceded to a request from colleagues to stay home, but he ultimately voted against extending the life of the government.

The leader of Kahol Lavan, Benny Gantz, played it both ways, instructing his party’s Knesset members to absent themselves from the vote – but also agreeing to have the legislation come up for a vote. If House Committee chairman Eitan Ginzburg of Kahol Lavan had asked Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin to remove the bill from the agenda, Levin would have been compelled to do so because the House Committee sponsored the bill. But in Kahol Lavan, which has a number of legislators in quarantine, the thinking was that the chances of heading off an election by trying to pass the bill later would not improve.

On Monday, Gantz decided to give Netanyahu an ultimatum and stay away from the vote – retracting his consent to the understandings he had reached with the prime minister, after realizing that the compromise would precipitate the breakup of Kahol Lavan.

A public relations campaign by close associates of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Kahol Lavan also did the trick. It portrayed Gantz as someone willing through his agreement with Netanyahu to sabotage the legal system in an agreement that would extend the life of a government headed by a prime minister under indictment and curb the justice minister’s authority.

Despite his defiant rhetoric, as a practical matter, Gantz was leaving himself one last opening for an agreement with Likud, preferring that the bill to at least pass Monday’s vote, which would require two more to become law. In the end, the bill was rejected by a vote of 49-47.

Kahol Lavan Knesset member Asaf Zamir in the Knesset chamber, Dec. 21, 2020.Credit: Danny Shem Tov/Knesset Spokeperson's Office

Zamir, who resigned as tourism minister in October, explained his vote against the bill in on Tuesday. “This was a bad government for Israel. I was there. I saw from up close and that’s why I resigned. That’s also why I voted [Monday] night against artificially extending its life,” he tweeted. “The person responsible for the failure is Netanyahu, a serial violator of agreements.”

Knesset members loyal to Gideon Sa’ar, a rival to Netanyahu who resigned from the Knesset this month, planned a similar ambush. Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser of Derech Eretz made it clear in advance that they opposed the bill and would vote against it, while Michal Shir Segman of Likud entered the Knesset hall at the last moment to join the opposition. Immediately after the vote, she announced she was leaving Likud and resigning from the Knesset.

Haskel, who has still not officially announced that she is linking up with Sa’ar, kept out of sight from the coalition leadership for hours during the day and refused to show up for the vote.

Later coalition whip Miki Zohar (Likud) submitted an official request to declare Shir Segman and Haskel as former Likud Knesset members. Likud Knesset lawmaker Osnat Mark verbally attacked Shir Segman in the Knesset chamber – calling her a “bitch.” In an interview with Radio 103FM, Mark stood behind her remarks and refused to apologize. But a short time later, she apologized for using the word “bitch.”