What to Watch in the Knesset

18 November 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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Knesset Discussion on West Bank Settler Violence During Olive Harvest

At the request of MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List), the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, chaired by MK Zvi Hauser (Blue and White), held an urgent discussion Monday on the response by Israel’s security forces to escalating settler violence toward Palestinians during the olive harvest in the West Bank. Representatives of the military and the Justice Ministry testified before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the responsibility of the security forces to protect the civilian Palestinian population from settler violence. Israeli human rights NGOs Breaking the Silence and Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights provided evidence to the committee. Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, a board member of the NGO Rabbis for Human Rights, testified about being attacked by settlers during last year’s olive harvest.

The Committee unanimously approved a resolution calling on Israel’s security forces to “prevent violence against people and the property of any person, and enforce the law against people who violate the law, whomever they may be.”

See: Yesh Din Position Paper: Israeli Security Forces Response to Settler Violence (Hebrew)
Breaking the Silence: Soldier Testimony Regarding IDF Response to Settler Violence (Hebrew)

First Meeting of Knesset Commission to Improve the Situation of Bedouin Residents

On Monday, October 26, the Knesset held the first meeting of the Parliamentary Commission on Improving the Situation of the Bedouin Population in the South, chaired by MK Saeed Alkharumi (Joint List), a resident of the Negev-Naqab.

Minister for Industry and Economy Amir Peretz (Labor) addressing the commission, committed to improving the situation of the Bedouin population in the Negev-Naqab and to recognizing three Bedouin settlements that are unrecognized by the State of Israel: ʿAbdih, Rakhamah, and Khašim Zannih. He also committed to establishing a new Bedouin city in the South to serve the populations of various tribes.

The head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, Atiyah Al-Assam, pointed out that 17 years after the State of Israel recognized 11 villages in the South, there is little progress: “We do not want decades without progress. There is no development at all. A village that was recognized 15 years ago has no entrance road.”

Chairman of the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh said: “There is no group that is more discriminated against than Arab residents of unrecognized villages.”

See: Negev Coexistence Forum For Civic Equality: Update on Recognition of Unrecognized Villages (PDF)
Knesset News: Economy Minister to Subcommittee: Will Recognize Three Additional Villages (Hebrew only)

Netanyahu’s Conflicts of Interests Come Before the Supreme Court

In July, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued a binding legal opinion that due to the conflict of interests stemming from the prime minister’s indictment in January on felony corruption charges that he must be prevented from exerting any influence on the justice system. Yet, the prime minister has refused to sign an agreement, and rejects the attorney general’s authority to impose one.

Last week, in a letter to Israel’s Supreme Court, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit defended the inviolability of the conflict of interest agreement which constrains Prime Minister Netanyahu from performing certain essential duties of his office while under criminal indictment. The agreement prevents the prime minister from appointing top law enforcement officials or from otherwise interfering with witnesses or other defendants, as such a power would grant him an ability to influence the outcome of his own case.

“The attorney general’s opinion on the prevention of conflicts of interest binds all the arms of the executive branch and reflects for them the existing law, similar to his legal opinion on other issues, and is not merely a recommendation,” the letter stated.

Mandelblit stated to the court that the legal agreement is binding and not a function of Netanyahu’s “good will.”

Ever since Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust in three separate cases in January, the prime minister has waged a campaign against the legitimacy of the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, the official responsible for overseeing the case against him, along with other representatives of Israel’s justice system.

Read: Attorney General Throws Conflict of Interest Dispute With Netanyahu to High Court, by Netael Bandel (Haaretz)

Supreme Court Hears Petition on Constitutionality of Coalition’s Power Sharing Agreement

Last Thursday, Israel’s Supreme Court heard a petition regarding the constitutionality of amendments to the Basic Law: The Government, changes to Israel’s quasi-constitutional laws which undergird the unity government’s power-sharing agreement. Following Knesset’s passage of the amendments facilitating the rotation agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the Meretz Party, along with a group of NGOs, including the Movement for Quality Government — filed a petition to the Supreme Court which argues that the amendment to the law effectively creates two “alternate governments” a change so drastic that it is effectively unconstitutional, representing an abuse of the Knesset’s authority. The state is arguing that this matter is “nonjusticiable.”

The Supreme Court, expanding the panel of justices from three to nine due to the sensitivity of the matter, has asked the state to provide an explanation within a period of 21 days, for the reasoning underlying the amendments to the Basic Law: The Government. In May, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government which changed the structure of Israel’s governing system, creating the novel position of alternate prime minister–currently occupied by MK Benny Gantz (Blue and White) — and which served as a basis for the unity government’s power sharing agreement.

Back in May the Supreme Court decided not to involve itself in the question of the constitutionality of legislation underlying the coalition arrangement, deferring any decision on the matter. However, at the time, Chief Justice Esther Hayut called the coalition agreement “highly unusual” and said some of its elements “raise serious [legal] difficulties.”

At issue before the court now is not only the question of the legality of these arrangements, but the standing of the Supreme Court to give opinion about the constitutional status of a Basic Law. With years of populist agitation against the Supreme Court as backdrop, many observers are concerned that a ruling by the court which invalidates the amendment will further fuel the campaign to restrict the court’s power.

An Emerging Rift Within Joint List

With its 15 Knesset seats, the Joint List, headed by MK Ayman Odeh, is the third largest party in parliament. But a potential alliance between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and MK Mansour Abbas, an MK who represents the United Arab List (the Southern Islamic Movement faction of the Joint List) has the potential to unravel the merger of the four, ideologically diverse Arab-majority parties that comprise the Joint List.

The leadership of the Joint List were surprised when Prime Minister Netanyahu unexpectedly attended a meeting (by Zoom) of the Knesset subcommittee to eradicate crime in Arab society, at the invitation of its chairman, MK Abbas.

Abbas has said that in exchange for Likud’s support for measures benefiting his constituency — namely larger budgets for long-neglected Palestinian communities in Israel — he is willing to consider supporting legislation that would protect Netanyahu from criminal prosecution, a prize Netanyahu has long sought, and for which he seems willing to do a great deal.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News, Abbas reflected the complex challenge in holding together the Joint List, an ideologically diverse party which strives to unite both progressive and conservative elements of Palestinian society: “What do I have in common with the left? In foreign policy I’m with them, of course – we support the two-state solution. But on religious affairs, I’m right wing. I have a lot more in common with Shas and United Torah Judaism than with Meretz and Kahol Lavan.”

Now, it appears Netanyahu is seeking to exploit these divisions.

Earlier this month, MK Abbas, who serves as the deputy speaker of the Knesset, disqualified a vote on the Knesset floor to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Netanyahu’s conduct in the so-called Submarine Affair, reversing a momentary victory for the Opposition. (Defense Minister Benny Gantz has reportedly finalized a list of members who would comprise such a commission, including a list of judges who lead it.)