The Knesset must appoint a chairman for its sensitive Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee by around May 1, the High Court of Justice ruled in an interim order on Thursday.
In a rare move, the court issued the interim order ordering the parliament to name a chairman for the committee after a petition on the matter was filed by jointly by Labor Party head Isaac Herzog (along with the party’s MKs Eitan Cabel and Nachman Shai) and the Movement for Quality of Government in Israel.
Formally, the order merely said that the Knesset needed to explain by May 1 why it cannot immediately appoint a chairman.
However, the court’s rejection and unusually open exasperation with the Knesset’s newest proposed deadline of May 29, and its willingness to issue any kind of order to the Knesset, signaled that May 1 is a likely deadline unless the legislature wants the precedent of the court issuing it an immediate final order.
Both sides in the long-running political dispute about the chairmanship, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud Beytenu and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, eventually agreed to a rotation arrangement, but they could not come to agreement on who would take up the position first.
In response to the petition, after violating a prior promised deadline, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon on Thursday told the court that it would resolve the issue by May 29.
But the High Court rejected this pledge, instead essentially ordering the parliament to install a committee head by May 1.
Herzog said appointing an committee chairman has become “one of the most embarrassing sagas in the Knesset’s history.
“Today is another low point, in which the High Court issued an order against the Knesset speaker and the Knesset House Committee. The prime minister once again did not keep his promise to appoint a chairman by the end of March,” Herzog said.
Herzog tied Netanyahu’s indecisiveness on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s leadership issue to failed negotiations with the Palestinians, calling him “a prime minister who can’t do anything.”
Shai pointed out that for nearly six months there has been little parliamentary supervision of diplomatic and defense policies.
“This is an unprecedented situation in which the executive branch is avoiding parliamentary supervision and can do whatever it wants without reporting to the Knesset,” he said. “Today, we succeeded in setting a limit for this situation, and I believe we will succeed in bringing Israeli democracy back to full, necessary function.”
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said the High Court decision showed that “the coalition is harming Israel’s security interests and violating the public’s trust in the legislative branch.”
Horowitz called for Netanyahu to “stop disrespecting” the Knesset and the public and immediately appoint a chairman for the committee. The Knesset Speaker’s Office declined comment.
Eliad Shraga, the Movement for Quality of Government’s lawyer, opened the hearing by quoting philosopher John Locke, in a dramatic attack on Netanyahu and others with power over the country and the Knesset’s laws whom the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is supposed to oversee.
He said that it was convenient for those with power over the law to fiddle with it at their whim, such as by indefinitely delaying the appointment of a chairman, and that such a delay was positive for all of the power brokers in the government – “it just isn’t good for the nation of Israel.”
Shraga quoted Yinon as having previously said that the situation was improper. Yinon confirmed this, but still rejected court intervention, on the grounds that the Knesset is a partially political body where decisions are made “by agreement, not coercion.”
The court battered Yinon on the point that a subcommittee on intelligence that usually meets weekly had only met four times in the past half-year.
One twist in the hearing was that the order was not issued against Netanyahu, only against the Knesset and its various bodies.
Shraga had not even listed Netanyahu as a defendant and while Herzog’s lawyer, Shimon Bar’on, had listed Netanyahu, he could not convince the court that, legally speaking, there was a basis to go after the prime minister.
As much as Bar’on claimed that “in reality,” Netanyahu controls who will be appointed as chairman, the court said that it can only look at the law, in which the Knesset has sole power to appoint the chairman.
Still, the order likely has enough teeth to get the power brokers to make the needed political decisions.