Key vote on Knesset speaker pushed to Tuesday after Lapid camp threatens filibuster

The outgoing and incoming governments agreed Monday to delay a critical vote for the post of new Knesset speaker by a day, moving it to Tuesday at 10 am

The agreement was reached following squabbling between the sides over the schedule and after the presumed outgoing government raised the specter of a filibuster. It was unclear whether filibuster attempts would also take place on Tuesday.

Likud MK Yariv Levin is slated to replace the current speaker, Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy, following a request from the presumed incoming coalition’s 64 MKs to make the switch. The Knesset speaker controls the legislative agenda in the plenum; therefore, installing a loyal speaker is a key prerequisite for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to push through a number of bills that will pave the way towards a new government he hopes to lead.

Among other matters, the incoming coalition wants to quickly change a Basic Law to clear Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s path to becoming a minister, despite his ongoing suspended sentence for tax fraud. Deri is slated to hold the Finance Ministry.

In a bid to stymie that process, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Monday that his party would seek to bar four lawmakers from voting on the bill, which would leave the incoming coalition short of a majority:

The bill to clear Deri’s way into the cabinet is seen as a precondition by Shas to join Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

But Lapid said Tuesday that Deri, Netanyahu, and two other Likud lawmakers had “a serious conflict of interest” due to their criminal indictments, and should thus be disqualified by Knesset legal staff from voting on the matter.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy at the swearing-in of the new Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Netanyahu is on trial for alleged corruption in three cases, Likud MK David Bitan faces charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust and money laundering from his time as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion; Likud MK Haim Katz was convicted last year of corruption and received a suspended sentence as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, for advancing a bill that benefited a friend.

Lapid said his party would urgently appeal to the Knesset’s legal consultant to prevent the four from voting on the Deri bill.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is facing a December 21 deadline to form a government, after President Isaac Herzog granted him a 10-day extension last week.

On top of a possible filibuster, the outgoing government had been said to be planning other obstacles to Monday’s Knesset speaker vote, including having Yesh Atid MK Merav Ben Ari compete for the speaker gig and stuffing the legislative agenda with items to delay the vote.

Levin is slated to become Knesset speaker — a role he’s held before — but only temporarily, after the party’s MKs approved him as their candidate in a Sunday evening telephone vote at Netanyahu’s request.

Yesh Atid MK Merav Ben Ari speaks at the Knesset on November 28, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin, a Netanyahu confidant who came first in Likud’s non-leadership primary earlier this year, is expected to become justice minister in the next government, and Likud parliamentarians have said he will quit the Knesset speaker post shortly before the government’s swearing-in, which will prompt another speaker election.

Other items on Netanyahu’s wish list for Levin to shepherd through are bills that the Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and Shas parties are widely reported to have insisted on as preconditions for swearing in the new government.

These include giving expanded policy and oversight authority over the police to far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, and creating an independent ministerial post within the Defense Ministry for an ultranationalist politician to oversee West Bank settlement building.

Likud MK Yariv Levin, flanked by party MKs Eli Cohen and Miri Regev, speaks to the press after meeting with President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a statement released by Likud and attributed to “senior officials” in the party Monday morning, Likud attacked Levy, the current speaker, who was reported to be considering jamming the legislative agenda or putting off setting a time for the speakership vote.

Likud also suspected the outgoing government could stall the voting process with various objections, then choose a time when enough members of Netanyahu’s 64-MK majority bloc were not present in the plenum to pull those objections and swiftly hold a vote to elect Ben Ari over Levin .

“Mickey Levy continues to shame the Knesset in an unprecedented manner,” read a statement from Likud attributed to senior officials. “He clings to the altar because he does not recognize the democratic decision of the citizens of Israel.”

Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu at an opening ceremony of the Eli Cohen National Museum in Herzliya, December 12, 2022. Cohen was an Israeli intelligence agent who was caught and sentenced to death in Syria (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Levy was “trying to hijack the vote in an undemocratic way, like a toddler refusing to part with his playground,” the statement said. “There has been nothing like this in the history of the Knesset.”

Recent history tells a different story, however. In March 2020, then-Likud speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to call a vote on a new speaker following that month’s national election, which saw Likud’s bloc lose its majority.

The High Court of Justice intervened, ordering Edelstein to call the vote. He resigned rather than call the vote himself, a move widely believed to have been a result of heavy pressure from Netanyahu.

On Monday morning, National Unity MK Ze’ev Elkin told Army Radio that the incoming opposition “will use all the parliamentary tools at our disposal” to stall the Likud-led bloc’s legislative efforts in the coming week, attacking what he called an unprecedented effort to pass far-reaching bills even before a government has been formed.

Elkin said the attempt to push through such consequential legislation within eight or so days, without a government, was “highly irregular” and apparently reflected a “complete lack of trust” between the parties in the incoming coalition.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, also of National Unity, was planning to convene the outgoing coalition’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation to hear the opinions of various professionals and legal experts on the legislative program. The move has no actual bearing on the Likud-led efforts, and is largely seen as an attempt to embarrass the prospective coalition with professional criticism of its plans.

Minister of Housing and Construction Ze’ev Elkin attends a conference in Modi’in, December 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Once the legislation process gets underway in the Knesset, the outgoing government is also expected to use tools such as filibusters and the filing of numerous objections and revision requests to the bills under discussion, in a bid to make progress as difficult as possible for Likud and its allies with the clock ticking down to December 21, when Netanyahu’s mandate to form the next government expires.

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