Ben-Gvir's Police Law passes, ending legislative blitz

The law is the last out of the four bills that the coalition began to expedite through the Knesset approximately three weeks ago.

 Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir closes his eyes during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.  (photo credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)
Far-right Israeli lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir closes his eyes during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament, at the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022.
(photo credit: MAYA ALLERUZZO/REUTERS)

Israel's Knesset plenum on Wednesday passed into law the bill by incoming national security minister MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, which will give him unprecedented control over the Israel Police. The debate continued throughout the night, and the final voting began at 10:00 a.m. on a number of reservations put forward by the soon-to-be opposition and then on its second and third reading.

The final vote passed, 61 to 55.

The law is the last out of the four bills that the coalition began to expedite through the Knesset approximately three weeks ago with the intention of signing all of them into law by the government's ratification in the Knesset, which is scheduled to begin on Thursday at 11:00 a.m.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed an appeal to the High Court against the law minutes after it passed, arguing that the law which passed in a "hasty manner" in the Knesset, will "seriously harm basic democratic principles such as equality before the law and the independence of the police, will lead to a violation of constitutional rights in a way that is disproportionate and inappropriate to the values of the State of Israel, and will cause serious damage to public trust in the police and the public legitimacy of its actions - which are a necessary basis for its operations and ability to perform its role."

The High Court announced later on Tuesday that the state had until January 3 at 1:00 p.m. to file its answer to the appeal. The court said it would then hear the appeal on January 5 in front of an unusually large 11 judges, presumably due to the sensitivity and importance of the case.

 United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf and Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben-Gvir with MKs from the likely coalition, November 21, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf and Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben-Gvir with MKs from the likely coalition, November 21, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The High Court later on Wednesday announced that the defendants, including the Attorney General, the Knesset and Ben-Gvir himself, had until January 22 to file their response.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also put out a statement saying that it believed the law to be unconstitutional, and demanded clarifications from the Attorney General in order to "clarify the mechanisms set forth in the law that will ensure that the police will not become a political arm of the government."

The law anchors the Israel Police's subordination to the government, as well as the national security minister's ability to set policy and general principles. It also enables the minister to set policy regarding investigations, after consulting with the Attorney-General, the police commissioner and the officers responsible for investigations.

Two out of the four laws, known as the "Deri Law" and "Smotrich Law," both amendments to the Basic Law: The Government, passed into law on Tuesday morning in a 63-55 vote after another all-night filibuster by the soon-to-be opposition.

The Deri law's intention is to enable Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri to be appointed as a minister, despite his conviction in January of tax offenses and subsequently suspended jail sentence. Deri resigned from the Knesset before the court determined whether his actions included moral turpitude which would bar him from serving as a minister for seven years.

Yariv Levin resigns as Knesset speaker

According to the law as it stood, the decision over moral turpitude would have had to be decided by the Central Election Committee chairman, High Court justice Yitzhak Amit. However, the new amendment blocks the decision from reaching Amit by changing the law so that it only applied to actual, and not suspended, jail sentences.

The “Smotrich Law” is another provision that enables the position of minister within a ministry. This would enable Religious Zionist Party Chairman Bezalel Smotrich to serve as a minister within the Defense Ministry, and take over authority over civil issues in the West Bank, including Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration

The fourth law, which blocked the option of four MKs to break off from a party in order to form a new Knesset faction, was passed last week.

 Likud Head MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with MK Yariv Levin during a vote for the new Knesset speaker at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Likud Head MK Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with MK Yariv Levin during a vote for the new Knesset speaker at the assembly hall of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

At the end of the plenum, Yariv Levin resigned as Knesset speaker so that he could serve as Justice Minister. Levin's resignation will come into effect on Thursday morning, ahead of the plenum session to ratify the new government, which will begin at 11:00 a.m.

The ongoing backlash from opposition parties

"The Deri Law is more proof of the weakness of [incoming prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu opposite his extremist partners," Yesh Atid wrote on Twitter after the law was passed.

"Bibi is weak, and Deri knew he would give in to him just like he gives in to everyone. IDF soldiers, Holocaust survivors and fighting the high cost of living doesn't matter to them. They don't have the goodwill to do what's right for you, Israel's citizens, but only to make a convicted criminal a minister without being bothered."

Outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid wrote in a tweet after the Deri law passed, "Even before it was fully formed, this government will be remembered as the most corrupt of all times. A prime minister on trial for severe crimes, a criminal who was in prison and then convicted again will be appointed to a senior minister who will be responsible for your money, a criminal who was convicted of supporting a terrorist organization will be given responsibility over the police. Every honest Zionist who loves his country is ashamed of this government."

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed an appeal to the High Court against the Deri Law as well, arguing that the law harms the Israeli governing system as it lowers the ethical standard to serve as a minister, all for "prohibited personal considerations, temporary coalition needs, and lacking any worthy cause outside of the passing political context."

Outgoing Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar pointed out during the Knesset debate that contrary to the incoming coalition's claims that the amendments were a manifestation of the will of the majority as a result of the election, recent polls showed that a large majority of the public opposed them, and that the new government was "wasting its credit" even before its formation.

"Two months have passed [since the election] and look what is happening - instead of excitement over the large victory, every hour the incoming prime minister is publishing an apology, or clarification, or reservation, or flik-flak," he added.

Sa'ar's comments were in reference to Netanyahu distancing himself in recent days from comments made by his coalition partners, who condoned discrimination against LGBTQ+ Israelis in private businesses on religious grounds, and by his son Yair, who called the State Attorney officials who indicted his father "traitors" and hinted that they should be executed.

Gideon Sa'ar at the announcement of a merger between New Hope and Blue and White, July 10, 2022.   (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)Gideon Sa'ar at the announcement of a merger between New Hope and Blue and White, July 10, 2022. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Outgoing Transportation Minister and Labor leader Merav Michaeli wrote on Twitter, "The Netanyahu government is celebrating passing the law that allows a convicted criminal to return to the scene of the crime. Shame. This is Netanyahu's government: people charged with crimes, people convicted of crimes, homophobes, and racists who bring shame on the State of Israel and are taking it down with them. We have to stop them and get the country back on track."

The law harms the Israeli governing system as it lowers the ethical standard to serve as a minister, all for "prohibited personal considerations, temporary coalition needs, and lacking any worthy cause outside of the passing political context," the movement argued in the appeal.

"This is a disgrace, madness, and moral tyranny," said lawyer Dr. Eliad Shraga, CEO of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. "It is a black day when the Knesset entered into the State of Israel's law book a kosher certificate for a convicted felon.

"We woke up to a dark day, in which the members of the apparent coalition acted like thieves in the night and hurried to change a Basic Law in a hasty and retroactive manner, only to allow the criminal Deri to be appointed minister.

"The High Court must intervene and prevent this disgrace, and even cancel the plea agreement made with Aryeh Deri," Shraga concluded.

Coalition struggles to iron out final details

Final details of the coalition agreements between the Likud and United Torah Judaism were nailed down on Tuesday, after a crisis erupted between UTJ's two factions over Lithuanian Degel Hatorah chairman MK Moshe Gafni's refusal to sign the agreement at the last minute. Gafni's change of heart was reportedly because he received a directive not to back down from a demand for Degel Hatorah to have its own rabbinic council on "kosher" cellphones, which would be slightly more lenient than the current council.

Degel Hatorah and the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael reportedly decided to postpone the issue until after the law to cancel outgoing Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel's kosher cellphone reform passes its first reading in the Knesset plenum. The reform's goal was to bar the rabbinic council from controlling which cellphone numbers would belong solely to "kosher" cellphones, thus blocking the council's ability to monitor who does and who does not use a kosher phone.

Shas' spiritual leadership council, the Council of Torah Sages, put out a statement on Tuesday evening that the ministerial positions and Knesset committees that Shas received in the coalition negotiations would be given in order of the party's Knesset list.

According to haredi news outlet Behadrei Haredim, this means that MK Aryeh Deri will be Interior and Health Minister; MK Ya’acov Margi will be Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister; MK Yoav Ben-Tzur will serve as a minister within Margi's ministry; and MK Michael Malkieli will serve as Religious Affairs Minister.

Additionally, MK Haim Biton will serve as a minister within the education ministry; MK Moshe Arbel will serve as deputy interior minister and deputy health minister; MK Uriel Busso will serve as party CEO, chairman of the Knesset Health Committee and deputy Knesset speaker; and MK Yosef Taieb will serve as the Knesset Education Committee chairman.