Israel's Parliament Returns for a Likely Brief Winter Session Amid Ongoing Coalition Crisis

Knesset members are returning to a weak, faltering parliament that may well dissolve itself in late December as coalition parties' mutual distrust keeps legislation from passing

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The 35th Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.
The 35th Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The honor guard for President Reuven Rivlin is likely to be the only festive event of the Knesset’s winter session, which begins on Monday.

Seventeen days after leaving for an unusually short recess, Knesset members will return to a weak, faltering parliament that may well fall apart in a couple of months. If MKs fail to pass a budget by December 23, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and new elections will be called.

In a sign of the times, a special dais was placed in the Knesset plenum on Sunday to allow the opening session’s three speakers – Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid – to sit at a safe two-meter distance from each other.

But even more than the coronavirus, the Knesset’s defining characteristic over the past several months has been the complete distrust between the governing coalition’s two main partners, Likud and Kahol Lavan. MKs have trouble advancing legislation because each party vetoes the other’s bills. For the same reason, committees have trouble overturning controversial coronavirus regulations even if one of the two parties supports doing so.

Mutual recriminations between the two never stop. On Sunday, coalition whip Miki Zohar (Likud) termed Kahol Lavan “a danger to the country” and accused it of “agreeing with Lapid to form a minority government with Balad and the Joint List,” i.e., the Arab parties. Kahol Lavan can no longer be Likud’s partner, he added, because “they’ve returned to the option of Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi,” referring to two of the Joint List’s leaders.

Coalition Whip Miki Zohar (Likud) in the Knesset, January 13, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

His remarks were prompted by Lapid’s public urging that Kahol Lavan support a no-confidence motion he is submitting on Monday. If the motion passes, a minority government including the Joint List would in fact be formed.

But Kahol Lavan has made clear over the last few days that it won’t seek to dissolve the government, lest it lose its grip on the ministries it now holds, first and foremost the justice and communications ministries. Moreover, MK Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz) said on Sunday that his party won’t agree to form a government with the Joint List, thereby ensuring that Lapid’s proposal won’t pass.

Legislation committee at a standstill

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which decides how the coalition will vote on bills, has been paralyzed for months. It virtually never meets, and when it does meet, it postpones any bill not related to the coronavirus. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who chairs it, said this weekend that it won’t meet this week, either.

This follows years in which the Ministerial Committee for Legislation effectively took the Knesset’s place. Because the governing coalition always commands a majority in the Knesset, any bill the committee decided the coalition should support would automatically pass, while any bill it decided the coalition should oppose would automatically fail. The panel’s decisions are binding on all coalition MKs, and it used to meet weekly to determine a position on every bill coming up for a vote.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn at a lawyers' conference in Herzliyah, September 3, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Nissenkorn blamed Likud for the panel’s idleness over the last several months.

“Likud refuses to discuss important bills drafted by government ministries and Knesset members,” he said. “Social and economic moves meant to improve life in Israel have been blocked for weeks already. And don’t bother looking; there’s no substantive reason or professional consideration behind the decision to prevent cabinet ministers and Knesset members from doing their jobs.”

But MK Shlomo Karhi (Likud) countered that Nissenkorn is the one “holding the ministerial committee hostage to his own political intrigues and those of his party, at Israelis’ expense.”

Breaking ranks

The ongoing paralysis has caused quite a few MKs to lose patience and start ignoring coalition discipline. Karhi, for instance, has urged his Likud colleagues to bring bills to a vote even if Kahol Lavan hasn’t agreed to them. In particular, he urged Zohar to allow a vote on a Likud bill to cut the salaries of MKs, judges and senior civil servants.

Nor is Karhi the first MK to ignore the government’s stated positions. Last month, Kahol Lavan MKs Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa voted against an amendment to the coronavirus regulations that barred people from traveling more than a kilometer from home to attend demonstrations. In July, Kahol Lavan and two Likud MKs voted for a bill to ban gay conversion therapy, even though the coalition hadn’t agreed to support the bill.

Yet another problem is that Knesset committees have proven toothless. On paper, they have wide-ranging powers to overturn coronavirus regulations approved by the cabinet. But in practice, they have been unable to exert much influence in recent weeks.

The Knesset Education Committee tried to get preschools reopened, but failed. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee threatened to restrict cellphone tracking by the Shin Bet security service, but backed down. And the Constitution Committee considered letting small businesses reopen during the lockdown, but retreated on the advice of its legal adviser.

MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), a leading advocate of letting small businesses reopen, announced Saturday night that he was resigning from the Constitution Committee because of his inability to have an impact. The coronavirus law, he said, seriously undermines “core parliamentary supervision of the cabinet.”

Aside from the fact that the coalition has a majority on all these committees, enabling it to thwart any opposition proposal, even committee members from the coalition seem to be deterred by the penalty they’re liable to suffer for opposing the government.

Three months ago, for instance, the Knesset’s coronavirus committee defied the government by voting to let gyms and pools reopen. In response, the government passed an amendment to the law that allowed it to transfer responsibility for approving coronavirus regulations from the committee to others that are more complaisant.

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