New Knesset convenes in shadow of Netanyahu's legal limbo

After the swearing in of Israel's 21st Knesset, the Blue and White party will focus its attacks against the government on the corruption charges facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after an inauguration ceremony of Israel's 21st Knesset, Jerusalem, April 30, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

May 1, 2019

Israel's 21st Knesset, sworn in April 30, is destined to function in the shadow of the legal limbo faced by Benjamin Netanyahu, the outgoing and incoming prime minister. Never before has the task of forming a coalition been handed to a Knesset member tangled up in criminal investigations, with the attorney general planning to charge him for bribery pending a hearing.

For the Blue and White party, the corruption charges Netanyahu is confronting will be the main focus of its attacks on the government. Nevertheless, the anticipated governing coalition is expected to grant Netanyahu a safety net, most likely through legislation. That is why Netanyahu has asked Knesset members from the Likud to postpone any holidays they might have planned for August. He told them that the legislative session will probably be extended by a week, “because there will likely be a blitz of legislation.” Given that Netanyahu made these remarks during a closed session of his party, and the hearing on his case is scheduled to take place in early July, it is generally assumed that he was referring to amending the Immunity Law to keep him from being forced to stand trial.

The Blue and White party is not wasting any time. Its first four pieces of legislation are aimed directly at the prime minister’s soft underbelly, i.e., his corruption. The legislation includes the Moral Turpitude Law, limiting the prime minister to just two terms in office, legislation to prevent a prime minister from serving in the event that he or she is indicted, and legislation to establish an official commission of inquiry to investigate the submarine affair involving Netanyahu associates. As an act of symbolic defiance, each of the party’s four leaders was the first to sign these pieces of legislation, followed by the faction’s 34 other Knesset members.

“We will not allow the government of Israel to become a legal defense and sanctuary for lawbreakers,” said Benny Gantz, the Blue and White's chair and likely opposition leader, in a speech to his faction's members. Gantz's message obviously targeting Netanyahu, signaled an intent to challenge his ability to serve as prime minister because of the indictments he faces.

Moves to amend the Immunity Law could well begin over the next few weeks, as Netanyahu’s anticipated hearing approaches. In that event, the various scandals surrounding him will become the number one item on the Knesset’s agenda. Blue and White will attempt to etch the idea deep into the public consciousness that the prime minister’s expiration date is rapidly approaching.

The Netanyahu scandals aside, the recent elections have resulted in major changes to the Knesset. The profile of legislators is very different from the previous Knesset's. There is an all-time record of 49 new members, 24 of them from Blue and White. This should have an impact on Knesset operations, legislation, and committees, at least initially. After all, being an experienced political veteran is a clear advantage when it comes to making effective use of parliamentary tools.

An even more significant change is the size of the leading opposition party. Blue and White is huge, at least in contemporary Israeli terms. It has the same number of seats, 35, as the ruling Likud. In fact, it actually has one more seat, because the Likud list included a representative of HaBayit HaYehudi in the 27th slot. The significance of its size is the visibility of the opposition and its ability to drive an agenda and a variety of parliamentary maneuvers, if the party manages to function coherently and its leaders remain united. Only time will tell if this is possible. Blue and White is an eclectic mix of people with diverse ideas who forged an alliance less than three months ago.

The rise and size of the Blue and White are a devastating blow to the Knesset’s left-wing parties, especially Labor, which has shrunk to only six seats. In the previous Knesset, as part of the Zionist Camp, Labor held 24 seats, but it was barely noticeable at the April 30 swearing-in ceremony. This can be attributed to the low morale among its members, but also because it has suddenly become a minor opposition party. In fact, the Zionist left, comprised of Labor and Meretz, has only 11 seats in the new Knesset. This is a devastating blow to any left-wing diplomatic agenda.

The Arab parties are also among those that lost strength. The split that resulted in the predominantly Arab Joint List running as two separate parties reduced them from 13 seats to 10. Furthermore, low voter turnout among Arabs had a noticeable impact. Much like the Zionist parties on the left, the Arab parties have some intense soul searching to do.

Women also lost strength. Only 29 of the 120 members of the 21st Knesset are women, six less than in the previous legislature. The 20th Knesset also began with 29 women, but their number increased as women filled seats that became vacant. Regardless, women are underrepresented. This will certainly be evident in the number of them who receive Cabinet positions. It is possible that there will be no women at all in the Security Cabinet.

Unlike the case with women, LGBTQ representation in the 21st Knesset increased significantly, with five openly gay members taking seats: Itzik Shmuli of Labor; Eitan Ginzburg, Idan Roll and Yorai Lahav Hertzanu of Blue and White; and Amir Ohana of the Likud. Ohana is expected to receive a ministerial portfolio. While this seems like an impressive and effective parliamentary force, it will likely clash with the conservative and religious forces in the Knesset, which also grew in strength. Ultra-Orthodox Shas and Yahadut HaTorah each won eight seats, and together with the five seats won by the United Right, they constitute a religious and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 21 seats. Nevertheless, that five members of the LGBTQ community are now serving in the Knesset is an impressive achievement in terms of image.

Another notable aspect of the new Knesset is the marked increase in the number of generals. A meeting of the General Staff could easily be called in the Knesset cafeteria. There is a record number of chiefs of staff in Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, all from Blue and White. There are also eight generals in the reserves, representing Blue and White, Likud and Labor. In this sense, Israel has returned to the “age of generals,” characteristic of the country's politics until the 1990s. Past experience shows, however, that a military background, no matter how glorious, does not ensure success in politics.

Gantz and Ashkenazi are about to face their biggest challenge. Having led the Israel Defense Forces, they are likely to find themselves bored and frustrated in the next few months by their new role as opposition parliamentarians. The feeling will only intensify if Netanyahu’s fifth government remains in power for any significant amount of time. The big question is whether Gantz and Ashkenazi are built for an extended stay in the opposition? We will likely find out over the course of the next year.

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