Israel’s Knesset Guarantees Government Power-Sharing Deal
Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid push through controversial amendment to country’s basic laws; experts warn that regular changes to the quasi-constitution are harmful
Israel’s Knesset passed legislation to guarantee a rotation government between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party late on Tuesday after a 15-hour debate.
In the last of its three mandatory readings, the bill was approved by a vote of 61-2, with most of the opposition exiting the chamber in protest and boycotting the vote.
The amendment requires that the power-sharing be distributed not only throughout the government, but also across the ministerial committees, and allows the prime minister to appoint two deputy ministers rather than just one.
In addition, the bill reinforces the stability of the rotation government with the condition that any dissolution of the Knesset which occurs during the first half of the government’s term, involving two or more lawmakers allied to the incumbent prime minister, will result in the alternate prime minister assuming the premiership.
This bolsters the strength of Yamina government officials, since if the government collapses due to withdrawal of Yamina support, Yair Lapid will replace Naftali Bennett as prime minister.
However, the legislation which secures the foundations of the rotation government is controversial since it is an amendment of a basic law. Although the use of the term ‘constitution’ to describe the basic laws is disputed, the Knesset notes that the basic laws “will constitute together, with an appropriate introduction and several general rulings, the constitution of the State of Israel.”
As such, political maneuverings that alter the basic laws are perceived by some analysts as reckless.
The basic law that was amended on Tuesday is “Basic Law: The Government,” which was first codified in 1968.
This is indeed an unwelcome development. I think that the basic laws should be entrenched, should not be amended according to the specific agreements between the parties.
Professor Barak Medina, an expert in Israel’s constitutional law at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line that regular changes to the basic laws are not desirable.
“In my view, this is indeed an unwelcome development. I think that the basic laws should be entrenched, should not be amended according to the specific agreements between the parties,” he said.
Medina said a temporary order to secure the power-sharing arrangement would not be an improvement. “Making this amendment a temporary one is even worse because it reflects the idea that we amend the basic law, which is supposed to be our constitution, just according to our immediate political needs,” he said.
This appears to be the position held by Israel’s High Court, which declined to entertain petitions against the amendment but has hinted on multiple occasions that it disapproves of amending the basic laws due to intragovernmental disputes and alliances.
The High Court is now paralyzed by its own precedent, Medina says. “The previous government [Likud-Blue and White] enacted a similar basic law that was enforced during the previous government, and the Supreme Court decided not to strike down this type of legislation, though criticizing it.”
Medina says the opposition boycotted the vote on amending the basic law over politics, not principle “They did just the same when they were in power. I don’t think it’s a matter of principle or something like that. It’s just more politics. They knew they would not be able to prevent it. So, they decided to boycott it,” he said.
Dr. Amir Fuchs, senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Media Line that amending basic laws every time a new government is formed is harmful, and yet successive governments do it because they can.
Indeed, research conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute revealed that Israel amends its constitution more than any country in the world, passing around thirty amendments every ten years, over recent decades.
He told The Media Line that “a big part of the amendments is just because they are good for the specific coalition that is in charge.” He added that constitutional amendments should only go into effect for the next Knesset.
Fuchs outlined some of the problems with the new power-sharing legislation. “For example, that the prime minister cannot fire the ministers. It’s a very basic authority that prime ministers always have,” he said.
Fuchs clarified that it “creates, kind of, a government within a government.”
In theory, power-sharing can be positive, since it dilutes the power of the premier, Fuchs said, but, he pointed out: “When the two sides are constantly bumping their heads together, it’s really a paralyzed government. They can’t pass legislation; this is the small problem. The big problem [in the last government] is that they couldn’t do any nominations. They didn’t nominate a chief for the police for a year. And we didn’t have a permanent chief prosecutor for a lot of time.”
While he recognizes that the current rotation government appears to be cooperating well, Fuchs explains that there always looms the theoretical standstill. “There is always the danger that if there is disagreement, then you reach a situation where the government actually cannot decide anything because the two sides are vetoing each other,” he said.
Aron Rosenthal is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.
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