New Opposition Lawmakers Pessimistic About Foiling Right-wing Legislation

Without a strong Kulanu helping to protect them, the courts could fall prey to far-reaching reforms by the new coalition. How Kahol Lavan will act in the new Knesset remains to be seen

Israeli Finance Minister and Kulanu party chairman Moshe Kahlon in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019
Nir Keidar

Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t even formed his next government yet but members of the presumptive opposition are already worrying that they won’t be able to thwart the expected wave of right-wing legislation.

It is generally thought that Netanyahu will forge a conservative coalition along with the ultra-Orthodox parties, as he did after the 2015 election, thus weakening the opposition. Together Labor and Meretz have dropped from 29 seats in the 20th Knesset to 10 in the 21st, and influential left-wing politicians such as Dov Khenin and Tzipi Livni have retired.

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During Netanyahu’s last term, there were six main items on the right-wing agenda: Reforming the Supreme Court; fighting boycotts of settlements in the territories; clamping down on the work of organizations identified with the left; promoting legislation constraining Israeli Arab citizens; making changes to the telecoms market; and annexing settlements.

At least some of these objectives – chiefly, impairing the power of the high court – had been blocked by Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party, but such a scenario seems unlikely this time around. His party’s status was weakened in last week's election, from 10 Knesset seats to four, and two Kulanu members who had led the opposition in fighting a few controversial bills – Rachel Azaria and Merav Ben Ari – didn’t make it into the parliament this time.

Kulanu now seems likely to merge with Likud (whence Kahlon came in the first place), and to agree to undertake party discipline in parliamentary voting. In addition, party sources admitted in recent weeks that protecting the court system did not help them this time among the electorate.

While the Labor Party headed the opposition in the 20th Knesset, this time the scepter will be passing to Kahol Lavan, the new alliance headed by Benny Gantz. How it will vote on various issues is anybody’s guess at this point. Not only is it a new entity but its members come from all over the political spectrum; some are center-left but there are also hawks like Moshe Ya'alon, who evidently joined the party spurred by loathing of Netanyahu. How they will vote in the future remain to be seen.

Among the components of Kahol Lavan is Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, who tended to paint his party as "right-lite" in the last government. For instance, its members voted with the coalition in favor of expelling families of terrorists from Israel – but sided with the opposition against legitimization of illegal outposts.

“To tell the truth," says a source in Meretz, "it was tough to conduct the battle against right-wing legislation from the opposition benches: Yesh Atid and Zionist Union tried to woo soft-right voters throughout the term. We sometimes found ourselves with only the Joint Arab List on our side.”

In the next Knesset, the source adds, it will be even more difficult to block the right-wing legislative agenda.

One key proposal by the outgoing right-wing coalition was the so-called cultural loyalty bill, sponsored by Culture Minister Miri Regev. Its purpose: to empower Regev to deny funding to institutions that “undermine the state and its symbols.”

Kulanu's Kahlon came out in support of the concept, which seemed likely to assure passage of the legislation – but it turned out, a month after he and Regev released a joint statement in favor, that certain members of Kulanu were appalled and that behind the scenes, the party opposed the bill.

During debates in the Knesset Education Committee, MK Ben Ari managed to institute changes in the original version of the bill, which basically neutered it. When Kahlon succumbed to Azaria’s pressure to let party members to vote according to their consciences – the legislation was done for. There was no longer a clear majority in favor of it and Netanyahu’s shrunken coalition, minus Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, was forced to let the initiative go.

But it is possible that the cultural-loyalty legislation and other right-wing bills snuffed out by Kahlon and Kulanu could now be resurrected, among them Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposal for imposing “the death penalty for terrorists” – which Lieberman could declare a condition for joining the coalition. A proposal for temporary sovereignty over the settlements could arise anew following Netanyahu’s recent promise to instate such a situation.

Another proposal that could be revived is the “muezzin law,” designed to limit the use of megaphones by muezzins calling Muslims to prayer. Ditto MK Bezalel Smotrich’s settlement division legislation, which would empower the World Zionist Organization when it comes to managing land in the territories.

Netanyahu's outgoing coalition did chalk up some successes in advancing right-wing legislation: the nonprofit associations law, requiring left-wing groups to disclose the identity of their donors; the expropriation law, legitimizing settlement construction on privately owned Palestinian land; and above all the nation-state law, despite revocation of its main operative clause, which was intended to subject democracy to Jewish identity in Israel. Even so, the law outraged members of the Druze and Bedouin communities, and so far Netanyahu hasn’t followed through yet with promises to upgrade their status.

It will also be interesting to see what happens in the new Knesset with the initiative by Habayit Hayehudi to enable lawmakers to override previous High Court of Justice rulings. Kahlon had given his party members the freedom to vote as they saw fit, but opposed the idea and managed to torpedo it. Things might be different this time around.