A Knesset legal adviser told lawmakers on Sunday it was “problematic” to pass a controversial bill designed to prevent prosecuted politicians from forming a government while elections loom.
Nonetheless, the coalition pushed ahead with the long-term bid that could prevent opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu from heading the next government and backed legislation that could be accelerated ahead of the expected dissolution of the Knesset this week.
The much-discussed but so far unadvanced bill would amend a quasi-constitutional law to bar a person charged with a serious crime from becoming prime minister. Netanyahu is currently on trial on three separate corruption charges and is the outgoing coalition’s main political rival.
Netanyahu’s supporters accuse the backers of having personally targeted Netanyahu and now changing the rules of the game just before an election. Your supporters say that a criminal defendant should not be a candidate for the highest political office.
A Knesset legal adviser told the Knesset’s Constitutional, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday morning that passing the controversial law would be “problematic” given the proximity to elections.
“It is definitely very problematic to enact a law of this kind at this moment, when we are de facto at the beginning of an election period,” Gur Blai told the committee.
The committee had met to discuss the merits of efforts to ban suspects from racing, without reaching a conclusion on whether the committee would advance its own version of the criminal suspects bill in the future.
The chair of the Constitutional, Law and Justice Committee, Gilad Kariv (Labour), noted that even Netanyahu has supported setting guard rails around the qualifications of prime ministerial candidates when it was politically expedient for him.
“It is opposition leader Netanyahu who has backed the cooling-off laws for senior officials and senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces to prevent certain figures from entering the political arena,” Kariv said, referring to the rules who prescribe a two-year waiting period before entering politics.
Despite Blais’ concerns, the Ministerial Legislative Committee voted on two proposals also aimed at outlawing indictees. The committee does not formally advance legislation, but decides whether the coalition supports proposals by individual MKs and helps push legislation through the Knesset.
The recalcitrant Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, who sponsored a version of the bill, wrote on Twitter that he was “happy” that the bill had moved forward and that he hoped it would go to plenary quickly.
“I really hope that this bill will not serve as a basis for negotiations,” he added, writing that “the bill should be brought to first reading soon and without delay.”
With the opposition and its allies delaying calling snap elections to give Netanyahu time to form an alternative government instead, some see the bill as a sword of Damocles over the opposition leader’s head that could encourage him to drop the candidacy.
The first opportunity to vote would be on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Meretz MK Gaby Lasky, who sponsored the other version of the bill approved Sunday, said it was unclear when – if at all – the bills would come to a vote.
Last week Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced their intention to dissolve the Knesset and send Israel to its fifth election since 2019.
Shortly thereafter, Bennett lifted his Yamina party’s veto on passage of the defendant’s bill, allowing Yisrael Beytenu’s leader and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Lapid to push for its passage, a long-standing goal.
While the government is trying to relax by passing a law dissolving the Knesset, the coalition and opposition have tried to negotiate outstanding issues such as
Negotiations were chaired by Likud faction leader Yariv Levin but have been on hold since last Wednesday, according to sources close to the matter. Levin was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Thursday.
The coalition is trying to press for a dissolution as soon as possible in order to limit the opposition’s ability to form an alternative government under Netanyahu and overthrow the current coalition without elections. The opposition is expected to slow down the dissolution process, which started on Wednesday and has already been postponed to Monday, when the dissolution laws are next discussed in the Knesset House committee.
On Sunday, however, a Knesset legal adviser, Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who chairs the committee holding up the repeal bill, said she could not delay it unnecessarily.
The criminal defendant’s draft law has long infuriated Netanyahu’s opposition-leading Likud party. In the committee discussion on Sunday morning, Likud MP Miri Regev spoke of a “political assassination attempt” on her party leader.
“This is not the criminal defendant’s law. This law is a political assassination attempt on Bibi Netanyahu,” Regev said, using the Likud leader’s nickname.
Likud MK Amir Ohana also expressed his party’s longstanding stance on the bill, accusing Netanyahu of the law being “personal” and as such an “assault on democracy”.
“There will come a day, and not far off, when the public will be ashamed of you and will rue you for the attack on democracy you are trying to commit. What you’re trying to do now is to stop the person who enjoys the widest public support from running for the Knesset,” Ohana said during the committee discussion.
Ohana, a former public security minister, also echoed a common Likud claim that the proposed law would “let an official decide” who can and cannot become prime minister. Criminal charges generally reflect the work of large numbers of law enforcement and prosecutors.
Proponents of the bill, on the other hand, accused it of being necessary because Israeli political norms discouraged politicians accused of crimes from resigning.
“If only we didn’t need this law, because in a decent country a defendant just stands up and resigns [political life]said Yesh Atid MK Inbar Bezek.
“Even if it’s not optimal to do it now, the week we dissolve the Knesset, it’s our responsibility to voters,” she added, saying her party came out with a promise that root out corruption.
Kariv raised the possibility of framing the bill to apply only to the next round of elections to avoid accusations that it was tailored to prevent Netanyahu’s return to the post of prime minister.
Although most of Sunday’s committee discussion was relatively tame for its topic, far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party within the Religious Zionism faction, called the committee a “circus” after it was thrown out of the discussion called Arab lawmaker Osama Saadi a “terrorist” by the Joint List.
“You are a terrorist. They support terrorism. Go to Syria!” shouted Ben Gvir, interrupting Saadi’s comments in support of the bill.
Separately, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation supported Attorney General Gideon Sa’ar’s bill to limit the prime minister’s term to eight consecutive years.
Although it would not apply retrospectively, this law is also seen as a jab at Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who last held the post for 12 years until a year ago.
A previous attempt to pass the term-limits law expired in May as the coalition lacked the votes to complete its legislative process.