More than a year later, Knesset members are starting to draw conclusions about the low voter turnout in the last elections. Barring any surprises, no fewer than four bills will be brought up for preliminary reading in the plenum on Wednesday stating that a person will be entitled to a paid vacation day on Election Day only if he brings confirmation from the polling booth committee that he has voted.
The bills were brought up for discussion in the plenum almost three weeks ago, but no vote was held, because the Ministerial Committee on Legislation opposed them. This could have led to the plenum rejecting them, since the committee's decision is binding on the coalition. Last Sunday, the ministerial committee rejected an appeal against its decision, but even that is not the end of the story. Influential Knesset members are behind the bills, including Yisrael Beiteinu faction chairman Robert Ilatov, coalition whip Yoel Hasson of Kadima and Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar. That is why the ministerial committee will discuss the issue today for a third time - and this time, it will apparently grant the MKs freedom to vote their consciences.
And in truth, it is hard to see the new minister in charge of cabinet-Knesset liaison, Ruhama Avraham-Balila (Kadima), fighting with all her might against the bills. That is because until last week, there were five proposals to deprive those who do not vote of their paid vacation day. The fifth was hers.
Only 63.5 percent of eligible voters took the trouble to go to the polls in the last elections, although as recently as the 1990s, voter turnout in Israel was exceptionally high, at around 80 percent. Public opinion polls had predicted an even lower turnout - a mere 60 percent. But at the last minute, it transpired that the Pensioners' Party might get enough votes to pass the electoral threshold, and many people went to vote for the party for the benefit of their grandparents. Among the explanations that experts gave for the low turnout were people's disappointment with their elected representatives, their feelings of inability to influence the government and the fact that many youngsters have no interest in politics.
Low voter turnouts are the norm in the Western world, but Israel is different: The Israeli government has to make very difficult and controversial decisions on life-and-death issues, as well as on the country's borders. "The sharp decline in voter turnout is jeopardizing democracy," says Sa'ar. "If it continues, it may create a legitimacy problem for the Knesset and the government." If turnout were 50 percent, for instance, a government elected by a majority of those who voted would in effect have been elected by only 25 percent of the electorate. Such a government would find it much harder to reach a peace agreement or evacuate settlements than a government elected with an 80 percent turnout.
What happens in other countries? According to a document prepared by Yuval Wargan of the Knesset's research center, there are 25 countries where it is mandatory to vote in national elections. In Australia, anyone who fails to vote must either pay a fine of 20 Australian dollars or explain why he did not go to the polls. In Luxembourg, first-time offenders are warned and repeat offenders are fined.
In Israel, ostensibly, people would not be fined; they would merely be deprived of a benefit. But Shas faction chairman Yakov Margi says that in effect, this is a fine. He argues that voting is a right, and it is inconceivable to fine people for not voting. He therefore proposed the opposite approach: canceling the Election Day holiday, but granting a day of paid vacation to anyone who does vote. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation argued that depriving people of their paid vacation is impossible, because many work places will be closed, so even those who want to work will not be able to do so.
Where did the compromise go?
It has been a long time since the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) factions last enjoyed such good times in the Knesset. It is not merely the slap in the face that attorney Amnon de Hartog gave MK Yaakov Cohen. It is also the so-called Nahari Law, which will make it possible to transfer money from municipalities to ultra-Orthodox schools, and which has already passed all three readings; a bill bypassing the Education Ministry's core curriculum, which was passed in preliminary reading; and now also the Tal Law. Last week, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee decided to extend the law for another five years. Barring unexpected developments, the plenum will decide likewise tomorrow.
The Haredi boom appears to have begun when Shimon Peres was elected to the presidency. However, it is difficult to attribute it merely to the coalition's gratitude. What seems more important is fear that the Labor Party will quit the coalition, leaving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a minority government of only 59 MKs. Olmert has thus begun investing more in Shas, which is a member of the coalition, as well as in United Torah Judaism, which might join it, were Labor to leave.
The initial predictions were that a compromise would be reached on the Tal Law - extending it, for example, by three years instead of five. In actuality, however, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussed only two proposals: MK Ami Ayalon's bill to extend the law by two years, and a government bill to extend it by the maximum period possible, five years.
The government proposal passed by a majority of six votes to three. Would this also have been the result had the proposal been to extend the law by three years? That is far from certain - which is apparently why the coalition did not make such a proposal. Shas MKs explained that the agreement was for a five-year extension.
Last May, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Tal Law is "a serious blow to the human dignity of members of the majority." The court did not overturn it immediately because it was never implemented, and therefore was not given "a suitable chance to fulfill its aims." But the justices warned that "if changes are not made, there is a serious fear that the law will become unconstitutional. Then there will be no choice but to reconsider all its arrangements, with regard to both its social aspects and its legal aspects."
It is difficult to see how extending the law for the maximum amount of time can be reconciled with this ruling. Thus in actuality, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee decided to fly in the face of the High Court. If the justices decide to reject the law's extension, committee members will no doubt claim that it is the court that has overstepped its authority, and not they themselves.
It's a long way to the fence
At last Monday's meeting of the Kadima faction, Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz called for construction of an electronic fence along Israel's porous southern border. That is apparently also the desire of the new finance minister, Roni Bar-On, who until a short while ago was in charge of seeking ways to stop the wave of refugees entering Israel. It's a move also supported by the new interior minister, Meir Sheetrit.
"Every day in which a security fence, which would put a complete halt to border crossings, is not put up along the 200 kilometers of border with Egypt is a scandal," Sheetrit said last Monday, during a Knesset debate on a motion for the agenda on the refugee issue submitted by Shas MK Shlomo Benizri. "It must be remembered," the interior minister continued, "that among these infiltrators are some who traffic in human beings. They bring prostitutes, drug dealers, weapons smugglers and almost everything possible here. It is also possible for terrorists to enter our borders from there, and they do. This matter requires thorough and serious attention. That is not what is happening now."
Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila (Kadima) noted that "the heads of the security establishment have been instructed by the prime minister to present him with a plan to establish a barrier on the border with Egypt within 30 days, in accordance with previous cabinet decisions on this matter." In reply to a similar motion for the agenda by MK Talab El-Sana (Ra'am-Ta'al), she added that the rate of infiltration into Israel via the southern border stands at about 200 refugees every week.
The 30 days will be over in another two weeks, so by then, we will have had a chance to absorb another 400 refugees. But it is worth noting that in another two weeks, the vacation month of August will be upon us. Then will come September, the month of the High Holidays. Thus it is not unreasonable to predict that no serious attention will be paid to the fence until another three months, at best, have elapsed and another 2,500 refugees have arrived. And of course, between the moment when work on the fence begins and the moment when the border is effectively blocked, several thousand more might have crossed over.
In general, Sheetrit is very critical of how the government of which he is a member has handled the issue of the refugees (whom the government prefers to call infiltrators, migrant workers or invaders). "Who is responsible for blocking the borders? The Israel Defense Forces have to do their job, and the police have to do their job. To my regret, there is a crying lack of coordination between these bodies. I am shocked - if I can be permitted to say so - by the lack of attention given to this issue, which could become extremely serious. That is why I am speaking so bluntly about the way I see things."
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