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Netanyahu checkmates Likud rivals, again

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing an amendment to the Basic Law on the government to ensure that President Reuven Rivlin cannot ask a Likud rival to form the next government.

Israeli media reported this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had obtained the support of his coalition partners for a bill that would limit the powers of the president after the next elections. The legislation proposes that only a Knesset member who is also head of his or her party can be tasked by the president with forming a government.

A senior Likud source speaking on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor on Nov. 5, “Netanyahu will announce early elections only after the ‘Gideon Saar Law’ passes the second and third readings. He’s going for it full force.”

That same morning, David Amsalem, chairman of the governing coalition, put the bill on the Knesset’s agenda, and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is expected to pass it on Nov. 11. The proposed law will then pass from the committee to the Knesset plenum on its legislative journey. The chair of Kulanu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and the chair of HaBayit HaYehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, have already declared that they will support the legislation. 

The bill is in fact an amendment to the Basic Law on the government and stipulates that the president can only charge a member of Knesset who is a party chair with the job of forming a government following an election. For Netanyahu, the amendment is meant to ensure that former Likud Minister Gideon Saar and President Reuven Rivlin cannot carry out the “conspiracy of the century” and “steal” the job of putting together the next government from him. 

Netanyahu described this scenario, characterized by political analysts as paranoid and detached from reality, at his birthday party, on Oct. 24. He surprised attendees when he said, “For the past few weeks, I have known that a former Likud minister is talking to coalition officials and has devised some subversive maneuver, that I will bring the Likud to a landslide victory in the elections and then ensure that I will not be prime minister, against the will of the Likud voters, against the people, against democracy.”

According to existing law, the president tasks the formation of a new government to the member of Knesset with the best chance of succeeding, based on the recommendations of the heads of each party. Netanyahu fears that under a certain constellation — for instance, if he is indicted — Saar could, after the early elections, gather the party heads around himself in a “subversive maneuver” to recommend him and not Netanyahu to the president. That is, Netanyahu would find himself without the premiership despite heading the Likud. 

Even if Netanyahu estimates that the chances of such a conspiracy are very low, he is not willing to take the risk and subject himself to the will of the president, especially not the will of Rivlin, given that their mutual enmity has only grown with the years. Netanyahu also spoke on Oct. 24 of a “loophole in the law” and let slip as an aside, “We’ll consider what to do about it.’’ Since the birthday party and the apparent attack on Saar, however, it has become clear that Netanyahu had already begun formulating the “Gideon Saar Law” behind the scenes. 

Assuming no hiccups, the proposed law will pass in the next few weeks, apparently with the support of all the heads of the coalition parties. Usually, in a best-case scenario such an amendment would take two months to pass, but in this instance, in light of Netanyahu’s pushing, the coalition requested an exemption from the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to bypass the 45-day wait period on the Knesset’s agenda. One can assume that the request will be granted. The senior Likud source believes that only after the law passes the required three readings by the Knesset plenum will the signal be given to call early elections. 

Netanyahu has now arrived at a decisive moment in his political life. He intends to call early elections knowing that an indictment against him is only a matter of time. As is his wont, Netanyahu is interested in diminishing uncertainties in a chaotic situation. As a result, one of the most pointless laws on Israel’s books will come into being. 

No one in the Likud today envies Saar, who in the last two weeks finds himself pressed to explain and insist that he has had no part in treason, after being forced into a fierce conflict with Netanyahu that he did not want, certainly not now. The proposed amendment is not, however, directed only at Saar.

The so-called Gideon Saar Law is actually aimed at anyone who fancies himself the heir to Netanyahu, for example, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. With the law's passage, the president could not task either of them with the job of forming the new government after the next election. Unsurprisingly, neither of them has spoken, protested or opposed the law. It is clear to everyone that the first person to say anything will immediately be accused of subterfuge against the prime minister or of scheming in the style of Saar. 

By contrast, Netanyahu’s request to change the law has brought a certain joy to the heads of the coalition parties for the opportunity it might possibly provide them. If following the elections the president can only assign the job of forming the government to the head of a party, theoretically it could be one of them.

Kahlon was the first to declare, on Nov. 4, that he has no problem with the law, and that Netanyahu is right, and indeed, the law has a lacuna that should be fixed. Bennett, who envisions himself vying to someday lead the Likud, said in a TV interview that he would support the law, which he described as “neither helpful nor harmful.” Bennett showed seeming generosity toward Netanyahu when he remarked, “If this law is important to the prime minister, I’ll go with the flow.”

Bennett is in the position of having to deal with the rising popularity of his party's number two, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is frequently mentioned as Netanyahu’s heir as leader of the right. Given this, Bennett's inclusion on the list of those “qualified” to form a government truly can’t hurt him. According to this reasoning, the chair of Shas, Aryeh Deri, and the chair of Yisrael Beitenu, Avigdor Liberman, would also support the law. 

All of the party leaders noted here head small and medium-sized parties. That seems to be the reason Netanyahu has no real fear that Rivlin, whom he abhors, would actually task one of them with forming the government. In any case, if not for the horrific scenario Netanyahu’s associates described to him, in which the former minister is plotting to sweep him off the stage, the loophole in the law would have remained in its current form, as it has for many long years. No one has ever needed to use it, and no president has ever made use of it. 

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