Knesset meets to change basic laws, judges deliberate legality of unity deal

The Supreme Court is deliberating on petitions to stop Netanyahu from serving as prime minister and to nullify the proposed unity deal.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Israeli legislators worked on a series of legislative changes on Tuesday as the Supreme Court began two days of closed-door deliberations on the legality of the unity deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.

Members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, wrangled over implementation of the changes to Basic Laws that have to be put in place by Thursday. Basic Laws have more force than regular laws and are considered quasi-constitutional.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Supreme Court is due to give its decision on whether the unity deal can legally be carried through.

The unity deal between Netanyahu and Gantz would create a government with 36 or more cabinet positions, requiring changes to existing legislation given its size as well as for other issues.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Sunday and Monday on eight petitions of which five argued that Netanyahu should not serve as prime minister while the other three asked the judges to reject the coalition deal on the premise that it is “anti-democratic.”

Netanyahu is under indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but has consistently argued he is innocent. Last month, Gantz went back on an election promise never to sit in a Netanyahu-led government and signed the coalition deal, saying the coronavirus crisis required a government of national unity.

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The unprecedented live television coverage of the two-day session of the Supreme Court not only opened the court itself to public view, but also put the spotlight on the right- and left-wing proponents as they argued for and against the petitions – with both sides repeatedly being chastised by the court for arguments that were spurious or contradictory.

Left-wing petitioners said the unity deal violated existing laws and should be struck down, but were warned by judges who called them out for arguing on ethical issues and personal opinion rather than dealing with any substantive legal basis for their argument.

Netanyahu threatened that if the judges struck down any parts of the coalition agreement, the country would be forced to an unprecedented fourth consecutive election.

The judges made clear they will not interfere in an ongoing legislative process, but with a flurry of activity to change several laws by Thursday they left the door open for future rulings on the legality of those changes. Earlier petitions against Netanyahu serving as prime minister had been rejected for being premature as well, but the court eventually heard them.

The unity deal is a bulky and convoluted agreement that forces legislators to change several laws to make it work. Those behind the deal say it’s absolutely necessary to prevent elections, while those opposed say the changes to existing laws run roughshod over Israel’s democratic norms.

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On Monday, the judges pointed out holes in several clauses, including the so-called “Norwegian Law” under which a Knesset member vacates a seat to take a cabinet position and that seat is filled by the next member down on the party’s list, which was by law set before the election and remains unchanged until the next elections.

The deal calls for that rule to be changed because Gantz’s Blue and White party had split into factions and the current law would allow into the Knesset those who oppose joining with Netanyahu and establishing a unity government.

The judges argued that changing the fixed lists bypassed the will of the voters. Blue and White decided to freeze changes to the law on Tuesday.

In the Knesset, opposition Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid blasted the unity deal, saying it sold out the voters who had cast their ballots according to Gantz’s promise never to sit in a Netanyahu-led government.

When you go to elections in the name of principles, you either lose or you win. You do not change the principles if you lose. You probably won’t replace them if you win,” said Lapid, whose faction split from Blue and White after Gantz decided to join Netanyahu.