Knesset legislative push resumes as clock ticks for Netanyahu to swear in coalition

Changes to Israel’s Basic Law undergirding the formation and functioning of the next government are expected to be finalized on Monday, as incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nascent coalition pushes ahead with legislation demanded by his partners ahead of the new government’s swearing in.

Holding an elevated but fragile status changed by a simple majority of parliamentarians, Basic Laws are Israel’s closest structures to a constitution. Far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich has demanded a mechanism by which he would serve as an independent minister within the Defense Ministry to take charge of West Bank building, while Shas chief Aryeh Deri is pushing to slacken cabinet fitness requirements, paving the way for him to be appointed to run two major ministries, despite a recent suspended sentence for tax fraud.

Combined into a single bill, the two changes are set for their second and third readings on the Knesset floor. Because they modify a Basic Law, the bill needs 61 votes to pass into law on its third reading.

Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition of far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies controls 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Monday’s legislative session will start with a formal announcement that Netanyahu has managed to form a majority government, a technical move that will trigger the start of a seven-day countdown to the deadline for the new government to be sworn in.

Last week, the Likud leader bought himself additional time to finish legislating his partners’ demands by shuttering legislative sessions for the Hanukkah holiday, delaying the start of the timer until Monday, despite having already informed President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday that he had secured necessary partnerships to form a government.

While Deri and Smotrich are set to have their demands satisfied shortly, a second piece of legislation expanding ministerial authority over the police, demanded by incoming national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, remains in committee to prepare for its second and third votes, often conducted together .

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, left, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich talk during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Substantially softened after a heavy barrage of criticism from the attorney general’s office, the police commissioner, former senior police officials, and opposition lawmakers, Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir’s bill originally purported to make police leadership and policy subordinate to politicians and blur operational authorities.

On Thursday, Ben Gvir — whose national security ministry will be a repackaged police ministry, the result of the promised power expansions — pulled back his demand to enshrine in law policies placing the police directly under his thumb.

Citing the need to defend against an expected High Court of Justice challenge, Ben Gvir said he would split his bill, and temporarily put on ice the subordination measures and his bid to set case management policy.

Other parts of the bill, which will set other policies, including regarding police investigations, are set to advance in some form. His bill also still includes a clause putting the police under the government’s authority, although it will not make the police commissioner directly subordinate to Ben Gvir, despite his many efforts.

Promoting the bill over the past weeks, Ben Gvir has said that putting the police under political control would be “democratic” and that to carry on Israel’s current system of guaranteeing operational independence to the police could create a “police state.” In general, a police state is considered to be a regime under which the police serve at political will, without operational independence.

Still mired in committee voting to clear over 1,400 reservations raised by the opposition, it is unclear whether the police regulations amendment will come for its final votes on Monday.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir attends an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has until January 2 to swear in his government, but Likud sources say he is pressing to do so as early as Thursday. To do so, Netanyahu must submit signed coalition agreements with his five partners at least 24 hours before a swear-in vote.

So far, four days after announcing to the president that he could form a government, and seven weeks after securing a ballot-box majority with the same partners who ran as a clearly articulated bloc, Netanyahu has only signed one coalition agreement.

On Thursday, the Likud leader inked a deal with one of the factions that make up the United Torah Judaism party: Agudat Yisrael, which currently holds the faction’s leadership under Knesset newcomer Yitzhak Goldknopf. However, the second UTJ faction, Degel Hatorah, has complained that Agudat Yisrael did not coordinate its position.

Goldknopf secured UTJ’s first-ever spot in the high-level security cabinet, angering Degel leader Moshe Gafni and secular leaders alike, as Goldknopf did not serve in the military and is actively pressing to reduce ultra-Orthodox requirements to enlist, as one of his party’s chief coalition demands.

MK Yitzhak Goldknopf at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Degel refuses to take ministerial positions and opposes any UTJ minister sitting in the sensitive security cabinet, in part because it makes decisions that cascade into war-making and loss of life.

Netanyahu also faces discord within his own party. Likud is the Knesset’s largest faction, and ambitious lawmakers are frustrated that Netanyahu traded away plum ministerial and committee leadership posts to other coalition partners.

Leaving little room for rebellion, Netanyahu is expected to reveal his party members’ final posts only closer to his swear-in deadline.

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