Arab Lawmakers Back Lapid Move to Replace Knesset Speaker

Right-wing Yamina lawmaker asked to retract his support for the move that could expedite the new government's swearing-in. But the Joint List – not part of the coalition – is expected to provide any missing votes

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Joint List leader Ayman Odeh gestures during coalition talks in central Israel, last week.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh gestures during coalition talks in central Israel, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party began the legislative process on Thursday to try to replace the current speaker of the Knesset, Yariv Levin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, with Yesh Atid lawmaker Mickey Levy.

Yesh Atid took the step without informing its future coalition partner, Yamina, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, is slated to become prime minister, risking majority Knesset support for the move.

However, later on Thursday, the Joint List – a majority Arab alliance that isn't part of the Lapid-Bennett coalition but a staunch opponent of Netanyahu – announced it supports the move, ensuring a comfortable majority.

Joint List officially requested to hold the vote during the Knesset's next session on Monday, in a move blasted by Netanyahu's Likud party.

Yesh Atid had collected signatures of Knesset members from the future coalition parties in advance, but Yamina only learned that they were submitted to the Knesset secretariat from a Yesh Atid press release. A short time later, Yamina lawmaker Nir Orbach asked to retract his signature. He is due to meet on Thursday with Bennett to discuss his reservations over the effort to replace Levin, after which a final decision will be made on the issue.

Yair Lapid, standing, and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.Credit: Emil Salman

The current effort to replace Levin with Mickey Levy is to enable the new coalition government to be sworn in as early as possible. If Orbach decides to retract his support for Levy, the new coalition would have to secure the support of a Knesset member from outside the Lapid-Bennett coalition, which took shape late Wednesday evening. The new coalition agreement states that Bennett would serve first as prime minister for two years, followed by Lapid for another two.

Hadash, one of the three parties making up the Joint List, is opposed as a matter of principle to a government headed by the right-wing Bennett, but the Joint List is also committed to preventing Netanyahu from benefitting from the faction’s votes in the Knesset. Therefore, if there are any further defections from the ranks of the Knesset members from the future coalition, the Joint List’s decision to vote against the new government would be reevaluated.

If the request to replace the speaker, which was signed by 61 of the 120 lawmakers, stands, a vote on the matter would be held on Monday, when the Knesset next convenes. Knesset rules require that the new government be sworn in no later than a week from the next time that the Knesset convenes, meaning no later than a week from Monday, June 14. But as a matter of custom, it generally occurs as soon as possible. The longer Levin remains in office, the longer he can delay the swearing in – up to June 21 at the latest.

Officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party are seeking to apply pressure on lawmakers from Yamina as well as Mansour Abbas, whose United Arab List party is part of the future coalition government, to foil its formation. The parties in the future government are trying to prevent that and are therefore attempting to have the new government sworn in quickly.

Yesh Atid Knesset member Meir Cohen was the leading candidate for speaker until recently, but then Yair Lapid decided to put forward Mickey Levy for the post. Political sources recently surmised that Cohen withdrew himself as a candidate for speaker due to sexual harassment allegations against him in recent years. Cohen’s name also recently came up as a possible social services minister, a post he has held in the past.

A report about Cohen broadcasted on Channel 12’s investigative news program “Uvda” last year raised allegations that Cohen committed sexual harassment while he was mayor of Dimona. He denied the allegations, calling them a “recycling of seriously false and fabricated claims of events that never took place.” The allegations, Cohen alleged, provided a public platform to a number of individuals who were seeking to damage him, “some of whom were tried and convicted of precisely that.”

Lapid informed President Reuven Rivlin at around 11:30 P.M. on Wednesday, a half hour before Lapid’s mandate to form a government was due to expire, that he had managed to form a coalition. Rivlin congratulated him and the heads of the other parties in the coalition and urged that the Knesset be convened “as soon as possible to approve the government, as required.”

In addition to providing for a rotating premiership, the coalition agreement appears to provide for a reshuffling of other senior positions in the government during the second half of its term, including Bennett’s appointment as interior minister, Ayelet Shaked as justice minister and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar as foreign minister. Such an arrangement would also be expected to help smooth over disagreements over representation from the coalition on the Judicial Appointments Committee.

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