Israel's Coalition Ends Knesset Session With Many Losses. How Long Can It Go on Like This?

While the Bennett-Lapid coalition lost a record 32 votes over five months, one bill remains a threat on the final day of the Knesset's winter session

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Knesset Speaker and coalition member Mickey Levy at the Knesset after he mistakenly voted against a coalition-sponsored bill, in July.
Knesset Speaker and coalition member Mickey Levy at the Knesset after he mistakenly voted against a coalition-sponsored bill, in July. Credit: Noam Moskowitz / Knesset
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

The Knesset’s winter session will end this week with several failures for the governing coalition.

Due to coronavirus quarantines, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s pet project, a bill to set term limits for the prime minister, won’t be brought for a vote. And since no agreement has been reached with the United Arab List, a reform of the conversion process important to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party will also wait until the Knesset reconvenes in May.

And though postponing these two bills prevented the coalition from losing a vote, it lost no less than 32 others during the term, according to Haaretz’s count.

The opposition has celebrated both the losses and the postponements as proof that the government no longer commands a Knesset majority. “These days, there’s no government,” opposition whip Yariv Levin (Likud) said last week.

Several people who have worked for the Knesset secretariat or its legal advice department for years said that 32 losses during a new government’s first Knesset session is the highest they can remember. They attributed this in part to the government’s narrow Knesset majority of just 61 out of 120 MKs. Narrow majorities inevitably produce more losses, they noted.

Another factor, they said, was that Bennett government brings together parties from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Although unity governments have existed in the past, the previous ones were comprised of two large parties that together enjoyed a very large Knesset majority.

Yet despite the large number, it’s not clear how significant the losses actually are and whether they really indicate that the coalition is falling apart. Although the opposition has won some votes, it hasn’t managed to pass any laws. The bills it did advance passed only their first or second of four required votes. Moreover, all were on fairly uncontroversial issues, like raising national insurance payments to senior citizens.

Most of the coalition’s losses stemmed from crises with two of its seven component parties – UAL and Kahol Lavan.

UAL declared vote boycotts twice – once over Jewish National Fund tree-planting in the Negev and once over an amendment to the Citizenship Law that would bar many Palestinians married to Israelis from receiving Israeli residency. During the boycotts, the opposition advanced nine bills.

Kahol Lavan declared one boycott in order to pressure the government to support its military pensions bill. During that time, the opposition advanced 12 bills.

In three other cases, losses occurred because individual MKs defied their own parties. And in two, they happened because a coalition MK got confused and voted the wrong way.

In the past, the phenomenon of parties or individual lawmakers refusing to support the coalition’s decisions were indeed a sign that the government was falling apart. But in this time, despite the disagreements, there are no signs that any of the errant parties or MKs actually wants to topple it.

The coalition’s more significant failures were those in which it couldn’t muster a majority to advance its own bills. There were four such cases during the winter session – which began on October 3 – two of them stemming from confused MKs voting the wrong way. But in three of those four cases, the bills later passed after the government resubmitted them, and the fourth is expected to pass during the summer term.

The most serious crisis facing the government seems to be the Citizenship Law, where no version exists that is supported by all the coalition parties. Some therefore plan to support the opposition’s version.

The bill’s opponents, UAL and Meretz, have already said they won’t bring down the government if it passes. But it sets a dangerous precedent by effectively making the government dependent on the opposition. As Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned, as soon as this happens once, there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again in subsequent disputes.

Despite their public gloating, even opposition leaders admit in private that their Knesset victories so far have been insignificant and don’t really indicate that the government is in danger of collapsing. But they view their efforts to foment enmity among coalition members as more effective – for instance, by issuing press statements in Arabic deriding the UAL for supporting “Zionist” bills, or proposing legislation to open a hospital in the Arab town of Sakhnin that the government opposed, forcing some UAL MKs to vote against it.

Coalition leaders said they realize the situation isn’t going to change, and the next Knesset session will also bring them plenty of losses. Nevertheless, they aren’t especially concerned about the Knesset’s summer term. The acid test, they said, will be the next winter term, when the next state budget will have to win approval.

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