The final days of the Knesset's winter session, which ended last week, highlighted the conspicuous challenges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces in attempting to keep his coalition in line as the scent of early elections hovers in the spring air.

Coalition parties are making bolder demands and accentuating their disputes. Take, for example, the clashes between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu at the end of the last session that forced Netanyahu to give up his goal of pushing through controversial legislation aimed at expediting housing construction during the winter session.

In private discussions, Netanyahu had indicated doubts about his ability to muster support for the bill in the next Knesset session, and was hoping to get the plan passed last week. Some Knesset sources say there is little hope now of getting it passed in the foreseeable future.

And then there are the skirmishes between coalition parties over the future of the Tal Law, which exempts tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from the draft.

Dorit Beinisch, who retired as Supreme Court president last month, created a firestorm in the Knesset recently when she said the Tal Law was illegal and should not be extended.

Shortly before the ruling, the coalition parties were at odds over the law. Several MKs said they didn't think the law would continue to be in force for long. Netanyahu announced he intended to renew a revised version of it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak proposed that the law be renewed for just for one year, after which a new law on the matter could be passed. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman indicated that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would oppose any extension of the Tal law. And the Haredi parties complained about any effort to alter the status quo.

All told, the fracas encapsulates the gradual collapse of Netanyahu's coalition.

And now the MKs have departed for a much-needed vacation, until after Independence Day, which takes place next month. Knesset insiders are betting that Netanyahu will soon declare that national elections are being moved up to September, or perhaps November. Should this happen, the lawmakers will return from their spring break for a truncated summer session, which will last just a few weeks.

Dashed hopes

The winter session should have been one of the most dramatic periods in the parliament's history.

Having been on summer recess during the social protest movement and the Shalit prisoner swap, and as a crisis brewed with the Palestinian Authority ahead of its UN statehood initiative, the Knesset members took their seats for the winter session filled with high hopes. They intended to legislate far-ranging social reforms and press the government to alter its policies.

Yet it became clear that the social reform agenda and the debates about policy change were quickly going by the wayside. The cabinet approved parts of the Trajtenberg report on social equality, but the vestiges of the protest movement's effect on the parliament faded, and reform proposals that MKs had drafted in the summer months never gained majority support. In lieu of social reform legislation, the Knesset devoted its energy to debates about the character of the Supreme Court, freedom of expression and construction on the settlement outposts.

The Supreme Court's status was a hot topic this winter, stirring debates between the coalition and opposition and widening gaps between the right and the left.

The Knesset authorized the so-called Grunis Law, paving the way for Judge Asher Dan Grunis to become president of the Supreme Court even though he was 67 when the previous president, Dorit Beinisch, retired in February. The law had previously stipulated that the chief justice must be able to serve at least three years, which Grunis cannot do since 70 is the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

Right-wing politicians, led by MK Yaakov Katz (National Union ), spearheaded this revision of the law as the left stood idly, whining about legislation meant to help a specific person head the Supreme Court. Some 5,000 objections to the law were filed, but it ended up being passed by a decisive majority.

Another law that generated conflict in the winter session concerned the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee. The law, was designed to augment the authority of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman by getting him a political ally on the committee - specifically, one of the panel's two Israel Bar Association representatives.

Opponents charged that Neeman was trying to ram through the Supreme Court appointments of his picks, particularly Judge Noam Sohlberg. Hours before the Knesset was set to vote on this bill, Prime Minister Netanyahu withdrew it from consideration. A few days later it became clear that a political deal had been worked out, enabling Sohlberg's appointment without any revision of the law.

Impotent opposition

The opposition has been impotent in past months. Time after time, Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Hadash, Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al have demonstrated an inability to form a united front to oppose coalition initiatives.

On the other hand, rare cooperation between the coalition and opposition helped advance a series of much discussed laws in recent months.

For example, overriding the opposition of the religious parties, the Knesset decided to raise the marriage age in Israel from 17 to 18. The Knesset also passed a bill prohibiting the employment of under-weight models in advertisement campaigns in the country, and it moved ahead with a law that would authorize the mandatory hospitalization of anorexia patients in order to save their lives.

In addition, the Knesset took a revolutionary step and endorsed a law imposing criminal liability on clients of prostitutes, in an effort to limit the scale of prostitution.

Personal lows

Leaving aside the legislative developments, the lawmakers' personal conduct has reached a low, compelling the Knesset Ethics Committee to decide whether various expletives are worse than calling someone a "murderer" in the parliament. It has also deliberated about unseemly incidents such as efforts to push aside a security guard who was called to escort an unruly MK from the Knesset chambers.

A review of the committee's deliberations in recent months reveals the sordid, embarrassing conduct of several lawmakers vying for the public spotlight.

The record-setter in the winter session was MK Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu ), who tossed a cup of water at MK Raleb Majadele (Labor ). The incident occurred at the end of an argument during a session of the Knesset's education committee. After an urgent meeting, the ethics committee took the unprecedented step of suspending Michaeli from Knesset plenary and committee sessions for an entire month.

MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta'al ) rode the waves that rippled after the water-throwing incident, and read to the Knesset an insulting piece of doggerel about "Anastassia's plumbing" that ended with an explicit, profane smear. The ethics committee removed Tibi for a week, and then added a month to this decision after Tibi ridiculed its decision in the Knesset, declaring in Arabic: "I have contempt for you and your decisions."

Meanwhile, MK David Rotem of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party said MK Zahava Gal-On of the left-wing Meretz party was "lower than a beast." He then denied having made this comment, but also apologized and escaped with a mere censure from the ethics committee.

Though they enforced unprecedented, stiff penalties against such Knesset offenses, members of the ethics committee adopted a forgiving stance toward lawmakers who excoriated MK Hanin Zuabi (Balad ) after her controversial participation in the May 2010 flotilla meant to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza.

The committee said former MK Eli Aflalo (Kadima ) was exercising his right to free speech by calling Zuabi a "traitor" and a "murderer." It reached the same decision about MK Yulia Shamalov Berkovich, who called her a "terrorist," and MK Miri Regev (Likud ), who urged Zuabi, in Arabic, to move to the Gaza Strip.

Dreaming of a Knesset with no gavel

Four puppets from the local children's television series "Hakuntzonim" visited the Knesset last week to film an episode devoted to Israeli democracy and a greeting for Independence Day.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin hosted the visitors in his office, along with his grandson Matan.

"Why do you pound on the desk with the Knesset gavel?" one of the puppets asked Rivlin. The Knesset speaker replied, wistfully, that he would prefer not to use it. "I thought Knesset members would be able to speak to one another with respect," he said.