Government advances ‘problematic’ bill that would block defendant Netanyahu’s return

A Knesset legal adviser told lawmakers Sunday it would be “problematic” to legislate a controversial bill to block politicians under criminal indictment from forming a government while elections were on the horizon.

Nonetheless, the coalition pushed ahead with the long-shot bid that could block opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu from heading the next government, backing legislation that could be fast-tracked ahead of the Knesset’s expected dissolution this week.

The often-discussed but heretofore not advanced bill would change a quasi-constitutional law to forbid a person under indictment for a serious crime from serving as prime minister. Netanyahu is currently on trial for three separate corruption cases and is the outgoing coalition’s chief political rival.

Netanyahu’s supporters accuse the bill’s backers of targeting Netanyahu personally and now changing the rules of the game shortly before an election. Its supporters say that a criminal defendant should not be a candidate for holding the highest political office.

A Knesset legal adviser told the Knesset’s Constitutional, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday morning that it would be “problematic” to legislate the controversial bill, given the proximity to elections.

“It is definitely very problematic to legislate a law of this type at this moment when we de facto find ourselves at the beginning of an election period,” Gur Blai told the committee.

The committee had gathered to discuss the merits of the effort to ban defendants from running, without coming to a conclusion on whether the committee would advance its own version of the criminal defendant bill in the future.

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair Gilad Kariv (Labor) noted that even Netanyahu had supported setting guardrails around prime ministerial candidates’ qualifications when it had been politically expedient for him to do so.

“It is the chairman of the opposition, Netanyahu, who has supported the cooling-off laws for senior civil servants and senior Israel Defense Forces commanders out of a desire to prevent specific figures from entering the political arena,” Kariv said, referring to rules which mandate a two-year waiting period before jumping into politics.

Despite Blai’s concerns, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation voted in favor of two proposals also seeking to ban defendants. The committee does not formally advance legislation, but decides whether the coalition will support proposals from individual MKs, helping shepherd the legislation through the Knesset.

Wayward Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who sponsored a version of the bill, wrote on Twitter that he was “happy” that the bill was advanced, and that he hoped it would be brought to the plenum quickly.

“I really hope that this bill isn’t held as a bargaining chip,” he added, writing that “the bill should be brought for its first reading soon, without delay.”

With the opposition and its allies delaying calling snap elections to give Netanyahu time to form an alternate government instead, some view the bill as a sword of Damocles over the opposition leader’s head that may encourage him to drop the bid.

The first opportunity for a vote would be on Wednesday. A spokesperson for Meretz MK Gaby Lasky, who sponsored the other version of the bill okayed Sunday, said that it was unclear when — if at all — the bills would come to vote.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar at the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced their intention to disband the Knesset and send Israel to its fifth election since 2019.

Shortly thereafter, Bennett lifted his Yamina party’s veto on passing the criminal defendant bill, allowing Yisrael Beytenu head and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Lapid to push for its passage, a longtime goal.

As the government attempts to unwind itself by passing a law to disperse the Knesset, the coalition and opposition have attempted to negotiate outstanding matters, such as an agreed-upon date for elections, final legislation to be passed, and other clean-up items.

The negotiations have been led by Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin, but have paused since last Wednesday, according to sources close to the matter. Levin was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Thursday.

Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and faction chair Yariv Levin (R) lead their party’s faction meeting at the Knesset, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition is trying to push for dispersal as quickly as possible, in order to limit the opposition’s ability to form an alternative government under Netanyahu and unseat the current coalition without elections. The opposition is expected to slow down the dispersal process, which began on Wednesday and has already been delayed until Monday, when the dissolution bills will next be discussed in the Knesset House Committee.

However, on Sunday, a Knesset legal adviser said Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who heads the committee holding up the dispersal bill, cannot delay it unduly.

The criminal defendant bill has long infuriated Netanyahu’s opposition-leading Likud party. In the committee discussion on Sunday morning, Likud lawmaker Miri Regev called it a “political assassination” against her party’s leader.

“This is not the criminal defendant’s law. This law is a political assassination against Bibi Netanyahu,” Regev said, using the Likud leader’s nickname.

Likud MK Amir Ohana expressed his party’s longtime stance on the bill as well, charging that the law is “personal” against Netanyahu, and as such, is an “attack on democracy.”

“A day will come, and it is not far off, that the public will be ashamed of you and regurgitate you for the attack on democracy you are trying to inflict. What you are trying to do now is deprive the person who enjoys the widest public support of running for the Knesset,” Ohana said during the committee discussion.

Ohana, a former public security minister, also repeated a common Likud claim that the proposed law would let “a clerk decide” who can and cannot be prime minister. Criminal indictments generally reflect the work of a large number of law enforcement and prosecutorial personnel.

The bill’s supporters, on the other hand, charged that it is necessary because Israeli political norms have seen politicians accused of crimes refraining from stepping aside.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir shouts during a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting, June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

“If only we didn’t need this law, because in a proper country an accused person just stands up and quits [political life],” said Yesh Atid MK Inbar Bezek.

“Even though it’s not optimal to do it now, in the week we’re dispersing the Knesset, it’s our responsibility to voters,” she added, saying that her party ran on the promise of rooting out corruption.

Kariv raised the possibility of crafting the bill to apply only to the round of elections following the next, so as to avoid accusations of it being tailored to prevent Netanyahu’s return to the premiership.

Although most of Sunday’s committee discussion was relatively tame for its subject matter, ultra-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who chairs the Otzma Yehudit party within the Religious Zionism faction, called the committee a “circus” after he was thrown out of the discussion for calling Arab lawmaker Osama Saadi from the Joint List a “terrorist.”

“You’re a terrorist. You support terror. Go to Syria!,” Ben Gvir shouted, interrupting Saadi’s remarks in support of the bill.

Separately, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation backed Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar bill to limit prime ministerial term limits to a period of eight consecutive years.

Although it would not apply retroactively, this bill is also understood to be a jab against Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, most recently holding the job for 12 years straight until a year ago.

A previous effort to pass the term limit bill expired in May, when the coalition lacked the votes to complete its legislative process.

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