Why the Israeli Governing Coalition Is Putting the Brakes on Right-wing Legislation

At risk are right-wingers’ goals to annex the settlement Ma’aleh Adumim, expand Jerusalem’s footprint to increase its Jewish majority, and declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people

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Likud ministers Gilad Erdan, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz at the Knesset, December 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with fellow Likud ministers and Yisrael Katz at the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Many Knesset members from the governing coalition left for their summer break this week with a bad feeling: The right-wing engine has clearly cooled. So Friday’s news wasn’t particularly surprising: The Likud and Kulanu parties have agreed not to submit controversial bills during the winter session so that the coalition can prevent the calling of an early election.

Just a year ago the coalition chalked up a host of achievements in a dramatic summer session. The Knesset passed a bill regulating the funding of nonprofit organizations, making it harder for left-wing groups to raise money from abroad. It also passed a bill enabling the ouster of MKs.

The following February, the Knesset passed a bill retroactively legalizing the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land. In March, the legislature approved a bill that forbids the granting of entry visas or residency rights to foreigners who call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of Israel or the settlements.

The Knesset also passed a bill under which businesses refusing to provide services to settlements must declare that policy.

But in recent months the Knesset has met for fewer hours. “It was a deliberate choice,” a source in the coalition told Haaretz. “No coalition party wants an election, so no one wants an unwarranted confrontation. We took our foot off the gas concerning many topics that could have led us to an unnecessary election.”

Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president got many MKs hoping that the status of West Bank settlements could be upgraded through legislation. Three months ago, MKs from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Habayit Hayehudi to his right were promising swift legislation.

Among the bills was the annexation of the settlement Ma’aleh Adumim east of Jerusalem, and the annulment of the so-called Disengagement Law, which would allow construction at the four West Bank settlements that were evacuated in 2005.

There was also a bill expanding Jerusalem by annexing certain surrounding areas — legislation intended to bolster the city’s Jewish majority. There was even a bill to place restrictions on mosques’ calls to prayer.

These bills were supposed to keep the Knesset busy over the summer. But just as the session began in May, Trump’s comments about “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians shattered dreams of quickly approving controversial initiatives.

Meanwhile, during the summer session, Netanyahu failed to advance one of his top planks, finalizing a bill declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. This week it turned out that the bill still has a long way to go to be approved; the center-right Kulanu party made clear it would oppose a tenet subordinating democracy to Israel’s Jewish character.

Coalition whip David Bitan in a Knesset committee, July 25, 2017Credit: Emil Salman

At the same time, Ultra-Orthodox MKs who are worried about such a bill regarding the status of Reform Jews boycotted a debate at the Knesset committee considering the legislation.

Relations with the ultra-Orthodox parties could have brought the coalition down during the summer session. Only six months ago Shas and United Torah Judaism said they would not be part of a government that permitted the desecration of the Sabbath; this came after the High Court of Justice approved a Tel Aviv bylaw permitting the opening of supermarkets on Shabbat.

Coalition Chairman David Bitan says that following protests against railway maintenance work on Shabbat, the two parties lowered their profile on this issue. “The ultra-Orthodox parties realized that bringing up work on Shabbat gave Yair Lapid a six-seat uptick in opinion polls,” he said, referring to Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. “This was the first time votes for the right wandered leftward.”

Netanyahu, for his part, devoted much effort to cement his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, standing with them last month in approving a conversion bill at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The bill would reject all conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system. Also, Netanyahu worked to freeze the deal that would have set up an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Bitan is actually pleased with the coalition’s achievements during the summer session. “It was a very successful session,” he said. “You’re not noticing it, but this government is working. This Knesset is working. Many bills are passing their second and third votes.”

The most significant achievement in recent months was chalked up by both the coalition and opposition. MKs from across the political spectrum announced a significant increase in benefits to disabled people, who will now receive 4,000 shekels ($1,124) a month. Initially, the benefit will increase to 3,200 shekels in January, an increase of almost 1,000 shekels over the current allowance.

A bill criminalizing the visiting of prostitutes has also gained pace — legislation that was also initiated across the political spectrum. The bill is expected to make the government take a clear stand on this issue in the coming months.

MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) is finishing her term as a key MK behind the opposition leader. She says one of the opposition’s main achievements in recent months has been the government’s failure to slow the launch of the new public broadcasting cooperation, an agency designed to separate public broadcasting from political influence.

“It’s amazing to see how quickly it went on the air, including news, and how natural it now seems,” Michaeli said. “But over the recess and early this session we waged a hard and dramatic struggle to ensure that this would happen.”

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