Netanyahu - Emil Salman - Feb. 16, 2011
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Feb. 16, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli right, bruised and anxious in the wake of the Obama administration's Pyrrhic veto of a UN resolution opposing settlements, now faces a new choice between two bitter options.

Desperate to salvage a legislative agenda which critics – even some on the right – have denounced as anti-democratic and McCarthyite, hardliners hard-up for votes are looking to two of their worst foes for inadvertent assistance: the Arab League and J Street.

The ruling coalition has scheduled a key Knesset vote just as eight MKs opposed to the bill were invited to Cairo and Washington for conferences by the two organizations.

Netanyahu's coalition has frayed over the bill, which would establish two parliamentary commissions of inquiry to probe human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations perceived as leftist, anti-Israel, or pro-Palestinian.

With a week to go before the showdown over the NGO panels, the coalition has hemorrhaged votes. No fewer than nine coalition MKs have announced their opposition to the bill, dropping Netanyahu's 65-strong majority in the 120-seat house to a 56 vote minority. A defeat would not topple the government, but the outcome could prove crucial to the fate of a broad legislative agenda pushed by Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and hardliners in the Likud.

In what Israel's Army Radio called an "ambush," the coalition scheduled the final roll call on the NGO probes for Monday, February 28 - to coincide both with an Arab League summit in Cairo, to which Arab MKs (and bill opponents) Ahmed Tibi and Mohammed Barakeh were invited, and with the J Street Conference in Washington, which lists MKs Daniel Ben-Simon, Amir Peretz, Nachman Shai, Yoel Hasson, Shlomo Molla and Orit Zuaretz – also opponents of the bill – among its speakers.

Removing the eight opposing votes could clinch passage of the NGO measure. Rightists have been stymied thus far in trying to win passage of more than a dozen controversial bills, which legal authorities have criticized as efforts to curb basic democratic freedoms.

When the timing of the roll call came to light this week, the opposing MKs were quoted as saying that they would return in time for the vote, if it indeed takes place next Monday.
Coalition and Likud faction chairman Ze'ev Elkin, a strong backer of the hardline legislative agenda, told the radio Monday that the fact that the eight MKs might be abroad for the vote was "irrelevant."

"Every member of Knesset has to decide what he wants – whether he wants to influence the Knesset, to which the voters sent him, or to wander around the world."

The flat-tyre juggernaut of a parliamentary process pushing for the NGO probes has openly circumvented harshly worded contrary rulings by the Knesset's legal advisor and Israel's attorney general.

Three of the most senior figures in Netanyahu's Likud - Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor - have been vocal in denouncing the bill. Likud MK and former IDF chief spokeswoman Miri Regev is also expected to vote against, along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and four other coalition MKs who bolted the Labor Party last month.

Rivlin was said to be working on changing the date of the vote, to allow the MKs to take part and also attend the Arab League and J Street meetings.

For Yisrael Beiteinu in particular, the path to passage of the legislative agenda has been paved with miscalculation. Early on, the Conversions Bill, which author and Yisrael Beiteinu faction chair David Rotem maintained had "nothing to do with American Judaism or anyone in the Diaspora," touched off unprecedented U.S. Jewish condemnation of an Israeli government-sponsored initiative. The furor even prompted Jewish community federations and the Jewish Agency to weigh in against the proposed law.

Another central factor in the mathematics of the vote will be the yes votes of the far-right National Union, whose four Knesset members include Michael Ben-Ari, an avowed disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose anti-Arab Kach party was outlawed in the 1980s and forbidden from participation in Knesset elections.

Last month, Elkin indicated that Ben-Ari would be chosen to chair one of the investigative panels.