Disengagement, Social Issues to Take Center Stage in New Knesset

It is fairly clear what the new Knesset will not do. It won't pass a constitution. For that Ehud Olmert has to form a cabinet without ultra-Orthodox parties. But Olmert promised voters convergence, not a constitution; and to pass convergence he'll need the Haredim. The outgoing chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Michael Eitan of Likud, led an impressive and unprecedented process of dozens of debates on the constitution. "It seems to me," Eitan says, "that even those in Kadima who dreamed of a constitution are pretty despairing."

An especially interesting question is whether the parties with a social agenda will exploit the backing they received from voters to pass a basic law on social rights.

What will preoccupy the Knesset in the coming term? First of all the convergence, relations with the Hamas government, the terror attacks that will apparently continue and the Iranian threat. But by its nature this preoccupation comes down to talk - motions for the agenda, hopeless motions of no-confidence and coalition crises (real or imaginary). In time the question will arise as to what exactly is needed to approve the convergence plan. After the precedent set by the disengagement from Gaza, it seems obvious that Knesset approval will also be required for disengaging from parts of the West Bank. Right-wing parties will presumably be quick to forget the claim that the elections were a plebiscite on the convergence, will claim that Olmert has no mandate and will demand a national referendum.

Two immediate challenges face the new cabinet. One is to pass the budget and the economic arrangements bill. This challenge appears relatively simple. Ultimately the crux of the coalition talks is over budgetary issues, so when the cabinet is formed the budget will also be assured a majority. Criticism is expected to come from several key directions. Likud will claim the government is destroying the economy and that the expected defense cutbacks endangers state security. Meretz will of course claim the government gave much too little to social issues and that Labor, the Pensioners and Shas sold out their principles.

The second challenge is Israel's immigration policy. The emergency order restricting the family unification of Israeli and Palestinian spouses expires in another three months. It is not at all certain that the High Court will grant a further extension. In view of this, the cabinet might adopt the most accessible solution: the Rubinstein Committee report, which recommended toughening the immigration policy for all spouses, not just Palestinians. Coalition negotiators don't seem to be dealing with the matter, but when crunch time arrives, disagreements might arise between Labor and Kadima