What to Watch in the Knesset

12 August 2020
What to Watch in the Knesset

The New Israel Fund tracks legislation in the Knesset that could change the way Israeli democracy functions. We will provide regular updates throughout this Knesset session.

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Budget Crisis, Rotation Agreement, and Netanyahu’s Trial:

Public attention is focused on the inability of the Netanyahu-Gantz government to pass a budget. According to Israel’s Basic Law: The Knesset, failure to pass a budget is one of the ways Knesset can be dissolved, automatically triggering an election – which would be Israel’s fourth in twenty months.

The terms of the coalition agreement signed by Likud and Blue and White in May to establish an “emergency national government,” provides for a novel arrangement, introduced to cope with the unprecedented situation of a prime minister having to face trial for corruption. By that agreement, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz is due to assume the premiership in November 2021, following 18 months in which Netanyahu serves as prime minister. Triggering a new election early next year — or sooner — would cut short the unity government and forestall a rotation altogether, giving Netanyahu a new lease on power.

That appears to be why, since June, Netanyahu has pushed to pass a “one year budget,” despite the fact that the coalition agreement requires that the government pass a two-year budget, in part to ensure political stability for the full duration of the rotation. Netanyahu is proposing a short term budget lasting only through the end of 2020 — at this point, a mere four months. Many see Netanyahu’s reneging on the coalition agreement as means to ensure a budget crisis ensues as the evidentiary phase of his corruption trial begins in January 2021, since a stopgap budget would mean having to pass a new budget once it expires in January, giving Netanyahu a renewed opportunity to trigger a crisis — and thus a new election — and preventing the rotation agreement with Benny Gantz from running its course.

Now, stuck in a faceoff over this issue, the coalition is approaching the end of the ninety-day window that the agreement provides for passing a budget — an August 25th deadline — which if missed, would force a new election.

As the standoff over the budget timeline escalated this week, Netanyahu cancelled the weekly Cabinet meeting. While there appeared to be a temporary breakthrough as Likud and Blue and White initially agreed to a compromise that would postpone their current budget deadline by 100 days, averting an immediate return to elections, Netanyahu has ignored Gantz’s ultimatum to approve the compromise proposal. He is now demanding to renegotiate the coalition agreement on other matters as well.

Meanwhile, the opposition party Yesh Atid, led by MK Yair Lapid, formerly a faction of the Blue and White Party, introduced a bill that would bar any Knesset member under indictment from forming a government. Blue and White’s election campaign had been based on the same premise as this law: a member of Knesset under indictment is unfit to serve as prime minister. Back in March, before Benny Gantz entered into partnership with Netanyahu, his party even introduced such a law. Yet on Wednesday, Gantz’s party chose to skip a vote on the bill altogether, effectively allowing the measure to be defeated in a 53-37 vote.

Anti-Corruption Demonstrations Swell:

The civic mobilization against corruption and insufficient public response to the economic catastrophe that has resulted from the pandemic continues to dominate the public agenda. In their seventh consecutive week, anti-corruption protests have grown in scale, drawing tens of thousands of Israelis from a broad cross-section of society. Demonstrators, as many as 40,000 at a time according to some estimates, while bringing forth a diversity of messages have joined together to register their discontent with the prime minister’s refusal to resign in the face of his corruption trial and in light of the government’s mismanagement of the dire economic crisis resulting from the pandemic.

The prime minister and his deputies in the Likud Party have sought to characterize the popular protests as anti-democratic, anarchist, and violent. Netanyahu has said that he sees the protests as “an attempt to trample on democracy” and a conspiracy by the media. Likud ministers have repeatedly levied accusations that protesters are “inciting to assassinate the prime minister,” as Minister of Internal Security Amir Ohana put it. Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, by contrast, has defended the right to protest as “the lifeblood of democracy” and urged the police to act “with minimum force necessary to maintain the law.”

Civil liberties groups have strongly criticized the conduct of police, and NIF grantees, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Public Committee Against Torture, Jewish-Ethiopian Association and others have demanded that the Israeli Police make public the specific procedures governing police conduct in a protest situation.

Override Bill Resurfaces and Fails:

Last Wednesday, MK Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) reintroduced a version of the override bill, a law designed to remove the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review by allowing the Knesset to override a court decision. Shaked’s bill failed to garner a majority in the Knesset, with Haredi parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas — along with members of the Blue and White Party, voting against it. The Likud Party abstained from voting.

In the end, only five MKs voted in favor. For those seeking to alter the balance of power between the judiciary and the other branches of government, this was a major setback. But it was also a reminder that ultra-nationalist parties still see circumventing the court and rearranging the balance of powers as a top priority.

Civil liberties groups have often warned against an override bill. They argue that it would pose a severe threat to Israel’s democratic character, undermining one of the only checks on legislative and executive power. What’s more, it would take away a lifeline for individuals for whom the court is their last chance at justice in the face of government failures or discrimination.

See: ACRIThe ‘Override Clause” Explained

MK Shaked and MK Naftali Bennett’s 2019 election campaign focused on the claim that Israel’s Supreme Court is unduly prejudiced towards human rights concerns and prefers Israel’s democratic nature to its Jewish character. While campaigns against the independence of the court have long been a mainstay of Israeli ultra-nationalism, these claims took on new weight as attacks on the courts became a centerpiece of political contention during the elections, especially as Prime Minister Netanyahu sought parliamentary immunity from the courts as he faced prosecution for corruption.

Now, Netanyahu’s trial — for three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust — is due to begin its evidentiary stage in January 2021.