Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party finds itself in an unlikely and embarrassing confrontation with Israeli soldiers, thanks to its stated policy of never supporting legislation sponsored by the current Israeli government, which ended Netanyahu's hold on power almost a year ago.
A proposed new law would anchor into the budget a program that helps cover tuition at institutes of higher education for some of Israel’s most dedicated and needy soldiers – combat unit veterans, new immigrants, lone soldiers and soldiers for poor families.
But the bill, which was supposed to be voted on Tuesday, is being held up in the Knesset after facing surprising objections from none other than Likud.
The right-wing party’s refusal is part of a policy strictly enforced by party chairman and opposition leader Netanyahu, which previously included opposing last summer the renewal of a law that blocks the automatic granting of citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens.
This time, the optics look even worse, pitting Likud against the interests of ordinary soldiers alongside Israel's most left-wing party, the Joint List (an alliance of Arab parties led by Ayman Odeh).
This allowed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to turn the tables on Netanyahu, who routinely attacks the government for including the United Arab List, an Islamist party, in the ruling coalition.
“I understand why Ayman Odeh opposes the … law that grants scholarships to combat units veterans. But why Netanyahu is joining him in opposing the law is hard to understand,” Bennett tweeted on Tuesday.
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Netanyahu’s scorched-earth policy breaks from a long tradition of the government and opposition working together on legislation they can agree on. Ostensibly, the former prime minister adopted the policy in protest over Knesset committee assignments that he said discriminate against the opposition. But in practice, it reflects Netanyahu’s broader strategy of delegitimizing the Bennett government.
“It isn’t easy for a man who was prime minister for such a long time to digest the fact that he lost,” said Prof. Gideon Rahat, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the faculty of the Hebrew University.
“From the point of view of democracy, this type of behavior is quite problematic. Because at the end of the day, there are points of agreement between both sides. It’s better for the sake of the system that they work together,” he said.
Likud lawmaker Yoav Gallant admitted in a radio interview Wednesday that he and his party are facing a dilemma. “The issue is about taking a somewhat longer view, in which case it’s clear that the most important thing is to bring down the government. Therefore, we have to oppose everything it does,” he said.
However, he added, “there are certain times – for example, when we’re talking about Israel Defense Forces soldiers – that we have to make an exception even when it helps the coalition. That’s what we need to discuss.”
While Gallant said he personally supports the law and will try to convince his fellow Likud lawmakers to do so as well, he won’t defy the party line and will oppose the measure unless Likud decides otherwise. Since he first spoke on the subject, several other Likud lawmakers have joined him in calling to support the bill, but the final decision rests with Netanyahu.
The aid program for Israeli soldiers was launched in 2016, allowing veterans from combat units – as well as new immigrants, lone soldiers, members of minority groups and soldiers getting financial aid for their families – to apply for scholarships that cover up to two-thirds of the cost of their higher education for up to four years. The rest is typically covered by a grant provided by the army.
Until now, the program has been funded by a combination of government and private sector funds. The idea behind it is to encourage more young Israelis to enlist in combat units at a time when many prefer to serve in places like 8200, the vaunted military intelligence unit whose veterans often go on to lucrative high-tech jobs.
“If you go into intelligence, you get lots of job offers. If you’re in a combat unit, you don’t get a lot because there’s nothing in the combat skills you learned that’s relevant,” said Y., who served in the armored corps and is now studying engineering on a scholarship.
The value of the program was diminished when the Netanyahu government added conditions to getting the grants, such as requiring recipients to either do reserve duty or volunteer work. Many recipients aren’t called up for reserve duty or don’t have the time for weekly volunteer activities.
Y. does reserve duty but is worried about what will happen next year. “I was definitely expecting to get the money, and if I don’t I’ll have to start working while studying,” he said. “I was promised I would have a clear mind to spend time actually studying.”
The government wants the program, known as M’madim L’limudim (From Uniforms to Studies), to be fully funded from the state budget. Amid threats of insufficient funding, last summer the cabinet authorized Defense Minister Benny Gantz to take 100 million shekels ($30 million) from the army’s budget to cover its costs this year, until the bill is approved.
But delays in passing the legislation have left some 16,000 recipients in the lurch while the bill awaits the second and third Knesset votes required to become law.
Until April, the government had been succeeding in winning Knesset approval for much legislation, most critically the 2021-22 state budget. But since MK Idit Silman (Yamina) defected, it no longer has a Knesset majority and its prospects for passing new legislation have been severely diminished.
Netanyahu’s negativism doesn’t seem to be taking a toll on Likud’s standing with voters, though. A Channel 13 poll earlier this month showed his party winning 36 seats if elections were held today, up from the present 30.
Nevertheless, Israel Democracy Institute’s Rahat said he believes the strategy isn’t going to help Netanyahu as much as a more pliant one would.
“A strategy of exemptions would work better for Israel and for Likud,” he said. “They should fight hard as the opposition, but when there are points of consensus, they should show they are working for the good of the citizens of the country.”