What to Watch in the Knesset

23 October 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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Government Restrictions on Protesting Not Renewed

On September 29, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee amended the law regulating Israel’s coronavirus policy allowing the government to restrict citizens from travelling a certain distance from their homes in order to attend a protest. These temporary restrictions, which allowed the government to bar large-scale demonstrations from taking place in front of the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour Street, lapsed on October 13. Absent any compelling public health rationale for their continuation, the government announced that it would not seek to renew them. Subsequently, the anti-corruption protests have resumed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and at hundreds of sites around the country.

This is a victory for civil rights groups, which campaigned against these anti-democratic restrictions.

Demands for a Commission of Inquiry into the “Submarines Affair”

Back in June, an Israeli NGO called the Movement for Quality Government petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to mandate an official commission of inquiry into what is called “The Submarines Affair,” after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided against naming Prime Minister Netanyahu as a suspect in the case due to insufficient evidence. As part of its election campaign, Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party publicly committed to establish a professional commission of inquiry into the affair, and as journalist Ben Caspit pointed out in Maariv, as defense minister, it remains within his power to form one.

What is the Submarines Affair? Last week, Hahadashot published an affidavit by Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel, former director general of the Defense Ministry, alleging that the prime minister and other senior government officials exerted intense and concerted pressure on the defense establishment to acquire submarines and other naval vessels regardless of military necessity and on terms advantageous to ThyssenKrupp, a German military technology company. Harel’s affidavit alleged “that behind this acquisition initiative was an interest whose nature was unclear to me, to expand the scope of the relationship with ThyssenKrupp and to increase the payment to that corporation in a way that was without justification.” While the affidavit contained no new evidence in the case, since Harel had previously provided testimony in the criminal investigation to police, its publication has fueled a renewed public call for accountability in the face of the alleged government corruption.

On Wednesday, Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg initiated a vote in the Knesset plenum to begin a parliamentary inquiry into the Prime Minister’s conduct in the Submarines Affair. While the initiative prevailed in a 25-to-23 vote, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) used his power to effectively nullify it, alleging that the vote had been improperly conducted by Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Joint List member Mansour Abbas. Opposition lawmakers decried this maneuver as an abuse of power and boycotted a subsequent recount. MK Zandberg called the move “a stain on Israeli democracy.” Opposition Chairman Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid-Telem) said, “Never ever was a vote canceled after the Knesset had voted. If a vote can be canceled that way, we might as well shut down the Knesset.” While the Knesset’s interim legal adviser, Sagit Afik upheld Knesset Speaker Levin’s move, the Movement for Quality Government and Meretz have declared they will ask Israel’s Supreme Court to reinstate the initial vote.

Among the seven individuals indicted in the $2 billion corruption case involving the irregular purchase of German submarines, were several close associates of Netanyahu, including the prime minister’s personal attorney and cousin, David Shimron, who represented ThyssenKrupp in Israel and stood to benefit materially from the contract.

Budget Crisis Remains a Ticking Time Bomb

The escalating dispute within the coalition between over passing a budget for 2021 threatens to dissolve the government and force new elections. At a faction meeting on Monday, Alternative Prime Minister and Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz presented an ultimatum to Prime Minister Netanyahu — agree on a 2021 budget proposal within two weeks or face new elections. If Likud does not agree to a budget within that time frame, Gantz announced to his party, “We’ll choose a different [course], be that dissolving the Knesset or some other course that we deem to be right. Things won’t be able to go on like this.”

Earlier this summer, the government nearly dissolved over an impasse between Netnayahu’s Likud Party and Blue and White over the timeline of a budget. In an hour-to-midnight compromise, they agreed to delay a decision by 100 days, although the underlying dispute remains, and the new deadline looms. Prime Minister Netanyahu remains insistent on passing only a short term budget, which will allow him an opportunity to exit the coalition before the premiership passes to Alternative Prime Minister Gantz.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to approve a budget, as required by the terms of his coalition agreement, may also stem from other power struggles with Blue and White over the appointment of a new state attorney, which may affect Netanyahu’s fortunes in his corruption trial due to enter a critical phase early next year. The Israeli news daily Ma’ariv reports that he Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz’s decision to allow a search committee for appointing a new state attorney to be formed t may be the decisive factor in Netanyahu’s calculations over the budget crisis, since by forcing a budget crisis, he can now use new elections to prevent Blue and White’s Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn from proceeding with the appointment of a new state attorney.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) told Army Radio: “I don’t think there is a single citizen who thinks the reason that no budget has been passed is for a professional reason. The prime minister is using the budget as a possible means of deferring his commitment to Blue and White.” This week, Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar from Likud gave a television interview in which he effectively confirmed that it was mainly political considerations keeping the Knesset from passing a budget.

Meanwhile, the impasse has claimed casualties in the Finance Ministry. Several high-profile resignations of civil servants from the Finance Ministry, including Director General Keren Terner-Eyal and Budgets Department Director Shaul Meridor, have led to further resignations, in what is widely seen as a “vote of no confidence” by professional civil servants in the government’s mismanagement and its failure to pass a timely budget.

Yediot Aharonot reported that Terner-Eyal told collealeages that “What’s been happening in the ministry recently is surreal. Everything is shooting from the hip. There are no professional consultations. I can’t continue in this situation.” Terner-Eyal cited widespread disregard for the recommendations of the professional economists within the Finance Ministry and political pressure from the prime minister. At the end of August, the Finance Ministry resigned, publishing a letter which alleged gross mismanagement of the Finance Ministry by Minister Israel Katz. Yediot reported that two more senior officials, deputy accountant general Nehemiah Kind and senior deputy director general Ruthie Ashkenazihave now left the ministry, with others expected to follow.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Discussion on Settler Violence

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) has requested that Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin convene a parliamentary discussion in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the escalation of settler violence emanating from Yitzhar and surrounding settlements in the West Bank. Citing “shocking evidence” which has emerged in recent weeks of masked settlers attacking Palestinian farmers, throwing stones at them, beating them, and then burning their lands with Israel’s security forces failing to intervene to prevent settler violence. Zandberg requested that the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee examine how Israel’s security forces are dealing with this pattern of settler violence.

NIF grantee Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights has documented a steep increase in instances of settler violence, including assaults and destruction of property, during the annual harvest season, which began in early October.

Read: MK Zandberg to Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (PDF, Hebrew only)
Settler Violence Against Palestinian Farmers Only Grows During Harvest Time (Haaretz)