With Budget Over the Line, Israel's Coalition Returns to Infighting

Ethiopian migration, halting an indicted individual from serving as PM, mixed prayer at the Western Wall: the budget's passage has unleashed a torrent of contentious bills exposing differences in Israel's motley coalition

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
Israeli Prime Minister Bennett at the Knesset vote on the budget last week.
Israeli Prime Minister Bennett at the Knesset vote on the budget last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Tensions within the governing coalition didn’t affect its ability to pass the budget, thereby ensuring its stability until June 2023. But now, each party will work to promote the issues important to it, even if not all its partners agree.

On Monday, party leaders used both their weekly meetings with party MKs and press releases to outline their goals. New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar said he planned to advance a bill setting term limits on the prime minister in a week or two. Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman pledged to ease the conversion process and improve the status of non-Orthodox groups at the Western Wall. And Labor Party chairwoman Merav Michaeli assailed government construction in the West Bank.

Even though there’s no agreement within the coalition on these and many other issues, its members don’t view any of them as the sort of obstacles that could topple the government. Senior coalition members warned immediately after the budget passed that each party would have to concede on some of its flagship issues, either by dropping bills it wants to pass or allowing the passage of bills it opposes.

At one point, the coalition considered trying to reach broad agreement on all these issues, but it ultimately decided to handle them one by one. Interparty task forces are already trying to reach agreements on some of them.

Nevertheless, party leaders’ public statements are causing tensions. That’s why Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged all his ministers to exercise restraint at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Now that the budget has passed, he said, “The government is on stable ground, the threat of elections has been definitively removed, and it’s time to get to work. I ask that this stability be reflected in all our actions. Our goal is stability and quiet on all the unimportant things and massive action on all the things that are truly important and of interest to our citizens.”

Later, during the closed portion of the cabinet meeting and in private conversations with ministers, he urged them not to fight publicly and to try to avoid statements that might embarrass their coalition partners.

Nevertheless, several such statements were heard in the Knesset on Monday. For instance, in addition to discussing the relatively palatable term-limits bill, Sa’ar also discussed a more controversial bill that would prevent someone under indictment from becoming prime minister.

Sa’ar said this bill, which is viewed as being aimed specifically at former premier and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, would require “patience and persuasion. We’ll try to convince those who haven’t yet been convinced, and we may be able to do so.”

But opposition to it is growing, even within the coalition. On Monday morning, Deputy Minister Michael Biton (Kahol Lavan) announced that he would oppose it. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of Yamina also opposes it, as do some of her party colleagues.

Lieberman brought up what may prove to be disruptive issues by saying he would submit bills later this month to allow municipal rabbis to perform conversions, and implement a long-frozen proposal to divide the Western Wall compound into two sections, allowing egalitarian prayer services with mixed seating in one of them.

However, there’s significant opposition to that plan in Yamina, and parts of New Hope may oppose it as well. Adding to all these tensions was Monday’s demand by Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (Kahol Lavan) that all remaining Ethiopians of Jewish descent be airlifted to Israel in light of Ethiopia’s civil war. Politicians who spoke with her said she threatened a coalition crisis if the government fails to act and the fighting in Ethiopia continues to worsen.

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