Fate of Israel's Coalition in the Dark Ahead of Key Vote

Lapid is shuttling around the Knesset to persuade dissenting voices to toe the coalition line on potentially explosive West Bank vote. But Mansour Abbas' party and a disgruntled Meretz lawmaker may not lend their support

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a Knesset cabinet meeting last week.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at a Knesset cabinet meeting last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israeli lawmakers are scheduled to vote Monday afternoon on a bill extending regulations that apply Israeli law to settlers in the West Bank, but the government is still far from certain it has enough Knesset votes to ensure it passes.

This would be the first of three mandatory votes to extend "emergency" regulations that have been in effect since 1967, and since then ratified every five years. Failing to pass the bill, which may have far-reaching consequences for Israeli settlers, could lead to a political deadlock, potentially even bringing down the government and forcing a new election cycle.

The United Arab List, an Islamist coalition partner with four lawmakers, is still undecided, and senior coalition members have been trying to convince the party to vote for the extension.

A former party lawmaker said on Monday morning that he doesn't expect the United Arab List's representatives to back the bill, which he told Ashams Radio "legitimizes the occupation and the settlement enterprise."

The party's chair, Mansour Abbas, is expected to meet later on Monday with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on the matter. Senior coalition figures said the issue was likely to remain unsettled until shortly before the vote.

Coalition leaders also hope that Idit Silman, the former coalition whip from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's Yamina party who withdrew from the coalition, will abstain, rather than vote with the opposition against the bill. Sources from Netanyahu's Likud party, however, say she intends to oppose the bill. Save for the Joint List, most opposition lawmakers do not oppose the bill, but are likely to vote against it to undermine the coalition.

If they cannot drum up a majority for the bill, the coalition heads will have to find a way to keep the government from disintegrating. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has expressed opposition to another postponement of the vote, which was already delayed one week.

Alternatives to the emergency regulations are also being examined, including temporary military orders, but Sa’ar has said that this is not a satisfactory solution.

Last week, Abbas told the coalition leaders he was willing to support the extension, but could not speak for his three party colleagues: A vote for the bill is in effect a vote for Israeli control of the West Bank. Sources in the party, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that Abbas wants to condition UAL support for the bill on a gesture that he can present to Israel’s Arab citizens as an achievement, but they added that it was doubtful that such a move could deliver the three votes.

Abbas has been speaking with his party colleagues as well as with the coalition heads, and Mazen Ghanayim seems to be the biggest question mark. The lawmaker told associates over the weekend that he did not plan to vote for the extension. However, Ghanayim said he would wait until Abbas makes a decision on the matter.

To make matters worse, footage on Sunday evening showed Israeli police ostensibly assaulting one of the leaders of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Salameh Hassan at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque after he made a remark towards an officer who was smoking. The incident prompted fierce condemnation from the party against the "cowardly assault that proves how aggressive the police is towards Muslim worshippers," and could put further pressure on Abbas not to capitulate to the right flank of the coalition.

Meretz's Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, who recently announced her resignation from the coalition but rescinded it later, reportedly said that she would oppose the bill on Monday.

Abbas, who wants to present a united front with Rinawie Zoabi, spoke with her over the weekend. After concluding that she opposed the extension, Abbas asked Lapid to speak with her.

Rinawie Zoabi told associates that she feels she is being played with, since the demands she submitted to Lapid as the condition for remaining in the coalition haven’t been met. Political sources say she has “one foot out of the coalition” and note that she abstained from the bill giving scholarships to combat veterans and from the Meretz Knesset caucus meeting.

She did not respond to a question from Haaretz about how she planned to vote. She is also expected to demand funding for projects for Arab communities in exchange for not foiling the extension vote. Coalition officials say that she’s likely to support the bill if the UAL does.

Figures in the UAL noted that the emergency regulation expires only at the end of the month, allowing time to reach a compromise or to pressure Likud and Religious Zionism lawmakers to vote for the bill.

Regarding Silman, sources in Yamina say that if she votes against the bill, she will be declared a defecting MK, a punitive step she seeks to avoid. Sources in the coalition say that coalition figures, headed by government secretary Shalom Shlomo, are pressuring Silman’s husband, Shmulik. The intention is to impress upon the MK that if the law fails to pass, she will bear the blame for the implications upon the settlers. Silman’s position may also help determine the UAL’s position: The Arab party would not want to take the chance of supporting the law, if it will not pass anyway, and then have to face scorn for no gain.

With the exception of Rinawi-Zoabi, the other members of Meretz are expected to support the bill. At an event on Saturday, Meretz MK Michal Rozin said: “I ask if we have an alternative, and what that alternative is. If I knew that I’ll topple the government and a center-left government would replace it, I’d do it right now,” she said, adding that if the regulations expire and the government falls, it would be pointless since “the right will pass the regulations within a week.”

Sa'ar insists that all 60 coalition members support the bill. Last week he declared that “The vote on the Judea and Samaria regulations will determine whether the coalition wants to exist or not,” adding that “the survival of the coalition is not a value in and of itself.”

On Friday, Sa’ar panned the “cynical and irresponsible” decision of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party to abstain from a vote on extending the application of Israeli law to its citizens in the West Bank.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud meeting with party members Miri Regev, Ofir Akunis, Yariv Levin and Amir Ohana, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In a video call with activists from his New Hope party, Sa’ar said of his former ally Netanyahu: “Not only did he not apply Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria, now he wants to impair our ability to uphold our rule there,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical name. “The opposition is using the method of ‘if I’m not in the government, let the country burn.’ Their readiness to play with fire is grave.”

The measure, Emergency Regulations – Judea and Samaria, Jurisdiction and Legal Aid, which was first enacted in 1967, is due to expire at the end of June. It was last extended in 2017, and Sa’ar seeks to extend it for another five years.

If it is not extended, after June, Israelis who commit crimes in the West Bank will be brought before Israeli military courts and serve time in the West Bank. In addition, the Israel Police will no longer be able to investigate suspected crimes committed by Israelis in the West Bank, nor of those who committed crimes inside Israel and fled to the West Bank.

If the measure expires, Israelis living in the West Bank will likely no longer have the right to government insurance, to membership in the Israel Bar Association or enjoy other rights and privileges they are entitled to by Israeli law. It would also have consequences on entry to Israel, military conscription, taxation, the population registry, adopting children and other matters.

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