What to Watch in the Knesset

16 September 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 Delayed, But Not Resolved

In late August, after weeks of crisis within the Netanyahu-Gantz government over passing a budget, the feuding parties agreed to a delay, forestalling a new election without resolving the underlying dispute. 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.

Since June, Netanyahu pushed to pass a “one year budget,” despite the fact that the coalition agreement requires the government to pass a two-year budget to ensure political stability for the full duration of the rotation agreement with Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz. However, contrary to the agreement, Netanyahu preferred to pass a short term budget lasting only through the end of 2020, effectively setting up a pretext for a renewed budget crisis at the beginning of 2021 — one that could dissolve the government and thus preclude Benny Gantz from assuming the premiership.

Yet, the coalition partners resolved their crisis at the final hours of the ninety-day window that their agreement provided for passing a budget. On August 25, Likud and Blue and White agreed, and the Knesset passed a bill to postpone the budget deadline by 100 days until December 23. This averts an immediate return to elections but fails to resolve the underlying dispute.

Meanwhile, the Governor of the Bank of Israel Prof. Amir Yaron has called on Israel’s government to urgently draw up a budget for next year, which it has not yet done, citing the harmful effects for Israel’s credit rating and international markets. The budget would also allow the government to set priorities in coping with the coronavirus.

At the end of August, the Finance Ministry Budgets Department Director Shaul Meridor resigned, publishing a letter which alleged gross mismanagement of the Finance Ministry by Minister Israel Katz. In his resignation letter, Meridor specified that: “Decision-making is influenced by narrow, non-germane, short-term interests, silencing the professional echelon, with blatant disregard for professional preparatory work, shooting from the hip, and trampling of budgetary rules and tools that have been the guiding principles for the stewards of the Israeli economy for many years.”

Netanyahu Attacks on Police and State Attorney Escalate

Over the past several weeks, in light of his ongoing corruption trial, Prime Minister Netanyahu has escalated attacks on the institutions of Israel’s law enforcement system — the police, the State Attorney’s Office and the attorney general. Netanyahu has repeatedly accused them of plotting against him.

Following a report by the journalist Amit Segal, which alleged misconduct by the Office of the State Attorney’s and the police in regards to Netanyahu’s corruption probe, Netanyahu demanded an “independent” investigation, drawing on a phrase popularized by Donald Trump during the Robert Mueller probe — “investigate the investigators.” The goal of such a commission of inquiry is to sow doubt on the legitimacy of the case against the prime minister. Practically, it would postpone the prime minister’s trial until the allegations of investigative misconduct are resolved.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit described Netanyahu’s allegations as “false, an invention out of thin air, whose entire purpose is to delegitimize the law enforcement system and its decisions regarding the prime minister.” Israel’s former State Attorney, Shai Nitzan, said in a television interview that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertions that the State Attorney’s Office had plotted against him were false and his allegations “filled with lies.”

The allegations of misconduct centered on the investigation into the death of Yaqub Abu al-Qiyan, who was killed by police in Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in Israel’s south. On January 18, 2017, Abu al Qiyan was shot to death by police after he lost control of his car and crashed into a group of police officers, killing First Sgt. Erez Levi. The police deliberately misclassified the accident as a “car-ramming attack” in order to preserve the credibility of police. Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly apologized to the al-Qiyan family for the killing, but used it as an occasion to discredit the law enforcement system and the legitimacy of the judicial system in the critical months before his corruption trial enters the evidentiary stage, when witnesses will testify publicly.

Government Mismanagement of Coronavirus “A Major Failure”

Over the past several weeks, Israel’s rates of new coronavirus infections have soared. As of Wednesday, Israel had more than 42,800 active cases, with one of the highest rates of new infections per capita in the world. Due to the failure to contain the virus, Israel’s coronavirus cabinet has decided to resume a policy of lockdown over the three weeks of the Jewish High Holidays, with key exceptions carved out for the ultra-Orthodox community for religious observance. Gadi Eisenkot, the former Chief of Staff of the IDF, characterized the government’s handling of the crisis as a “major failure and lack of strategy and leadership,” speaking at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

Meanwhile, civil liberties organizations have challenged the legality of the “Law of Special Authorities for Dealing with the Novel Coronavirus (Temporary Order) 5720-2020,” also known as the “Major Coronavirus Law.” The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel filed a joint petition to the Supreme Court on September 8, arguing that this legislation, which grants sweeping emergency powers to the executive branch, and passed with inadequate parliamentary deliberation, is unconstitutional. The power to declare a state of emergency is reserved for an act of Knesset according to Israel’s Basic Law: Government.

ACRI: Supreme Court Petition Against Coronavirus Law
Read: Full petition here (Hebrew only)

Anti-Corruption Demonstrations Suspended Due to Lockdown

Civic mobilization against corruption and the insufficient public response to the economic crisis have continued, with regular Saturday night demonstrations in Jerusalem and at junctions around the country. As the anti-corruption protests have grown in scale, tens of thousands of Israelis, from a broad cross-section of society, have continued to call on the prime minister to resign in the face of his corruption trial and the government’s mismanagement of the dire economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. Last Saturday night was the final demonstration before the government is set to reinstate a full lockdown..

Leaders of the “Black Flag” movement have indicated that they will discontinue the weekly demonstrations on Balfour Street, which have come to characterize the current protest movement. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) has assured Israelis that the right to protest will not be infringed due to the lockdown. “Our job is to make sure that no one takes advantage of the fragile situation to harm the Israeli justice system…No one wants to live in a country where the government bans protests against it.”

Renewed Threats of an Override Bill

In August, 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. Coalition Chairman Likud MK Miki Zohar has recently reinvigorated concerns about the passage of this anti-democratic measure when he suggested late last month that, “legislating the override clause needs to be a condition for the government’s continued existence.”

MK Zohar’s remarks came after a High Court of Justice ruling requiring the demolition of houses in the West Bank settlement outpost Mitzpe Kramim, which was illegally built on privately owned Palestinian land. In August, Ayelet Shaked’s bill failed to garner a majority in the Knesset, with Haredi parties and members of Blue and White voting against it. The Likud Party abstained from voting.

Last year, as part of Netanyahu’s quest for immunity from prosecution for corruption, he sought to compose a government that would craft a law specifically granting him immunity as prime minister, along with an “override clause” that would preclude Israel’s Supreme Court from overturning it.

Civil liberties groups warn that an override bill would pose a severe threat to Israel’s democratic character, undermining one of the only checks on legislative and executive power. Furthermore, 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.

ACRI: The ‘Override Clause’ Explained