Israel’s Knesset elects Netanyahu ally temporary speaker in unusual move

Yariv Levin greets Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu during the session to elect the new speaker (Gil Cohen-Magen - AFP)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /   December 13, 2022

Likud party decision to install Yariv Levin makes it possible to change laws before government sworn in.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has elected one of its members as temporary speaker of Israel’s Knesset, an unusual decision that will allow his incoming far-right and religious coalition to advance sweeping legislative changes before a government is officially sworn in.

A majority of 64 Knesset members voted on Tuesday to install Netanyahu confidante Yariv Levin as temporary speaker, a critical step that will make it possible for the prime minister-designate to fulfil promises he has made to potential cabinet partners before they take up their posts.

With Levin in place, the coalition intends to pass several pieces of legislation as soon as possible, including an amendment that will allow the ultra-Orthodox politician Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister despite his conviction for tax evasion; an amendment to give the incoming national security minister, the extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir, extended powers over the police force; and an amendment that would transfer oversight of Israel’s civil administration in the occupied West Bank from the Defence ministry to the incoming Finance minister, the far-right Bezalel Smotrich.

The latter issue in particular is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories: moving elements of control out of the defence ministry’s hands to a civil ministry is already being considered by Israeli and Palestinian analysts as de facto annexation.

When Netanyahu’s bloc won a convincing victory of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset last month in Israel’s fifth election in less than four years, it was expected it would be relatively easy for a homogenous rightwing-religious coalition to form a government.

However, disagreements over distribution of power and which factions receive which ministerial posts have proved difficult to overcome. Last week, Netanyahu asked Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, for a two-week extension after his mandate expired. The president, whose position is largely ceremonial, gave the prime minister-designate another 10 days, meaning the final deadline to form a government is now 21 December.

Should Netanyahu fail to meet the deadline, Herzog can task another member of Knesset to try forming a government. Otherwise, a new election will be called.

“These are complex days for Israeli society when disputes over fundamental issues threaten to tear apart and ignite violence and hatred,” Herzog said in a letter to Netanyahu that his office made public, calling on the veteran politician to assemble a governing coalition that represents the whole country.

Netanyahu, already Israel’s longest-serving leader, was removed from office last summer by a diverse coalition that formed a “government of change”. Infighting led to its downfall a year later, however, sending a frustrated electorate back to the voting booths.

As with the four other elections since 2019, November’s poll was a referendum on Netanyahu’s suitability to govern: the 73-year-old is on trial for corruption charges, which he denies.

Netanyahu’s coalition won a convincing majority, in large part thanks to the surging popularity of the Religious Zionists, a slate made up of three far-right parties led by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, both known for their anti-Arab positions.

The Religious Zionists’ shopping list during coalition negotiations has included immunity from prosecution for Israeli soldiers, the expansion of illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank, and the reversal of LGBTQ+-friendly laws. Israeli media reports that an ultra-Orthodox party is demanding gender-segregated beaches, more religious education for secular Israelis and stopping power plants producing electricity on the Sabbath, instead using reserves.

Speaking at the Knesset podium before the vote, the outgoing centrist prime minister, Yair Lapid, called Netanyahu “weak and terrified of his trial … Smotrich and Deri control this government. Netanyahu is a junior partner … taken over by people younger than him, more extreme and determined than him.”

He added: “We are not your fools. We are not here just to pay taxes and send our children to the army. We love this country just as much as you, and we are Jews just as much as you, and we will not let you destroy our democracy.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian