Knesset Pushes Through Land Reform Bill, Mofaz Law Before Summer Break

After numerous delays, rebellion within the coalition, threats to fire ministers and an ethereal compromise with the Labor Party; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded yesterday in getting the Knesset to pass two bills in their second and third readings: the so-called Mofaz law making it easier to split Knesset factions and the land reform bill.

Both laws had turned into both a matter of principle and a personal battle for Netanyahu.

The prime minister may be going on summer recess in a more relaxed state after pushing through the two bills, but the passage of the land reform law could worsen a rupture in the Labor Party worse and bring a split closer - putting Netanyahu's coalition in peril.

There is also talk of an internal split in the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset faction. MKs Uri Orbach and Zevulun Orlev, who voted against the land reforms, could turn rebel during the Knesset's winter session (See story, Page 3).

The Mofaz law enables seven MKs to split off from their party and form a new faction, or join another. It passed by a 60-43 margin, including the five rebel Labor MKs. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who led the opposition to the law within the Likud, did not participate in the vote.

Mofaz once again told the Knesset he had no intention of splitting Kadima and joining Likud, and attacked Netanyahu again yesterday. Despite Mofaz's statements, Netanyahu and his supporters view the bill as a major achievement in adding stability to the coalition.

While the vote on the Mofaz law was conducted relatively quietly and with no surprises, the vote on reforms in the Israel Lands Administration was emotional and raucous.

Netanyahu succeeded in passing the bill with a 61-45 majority, with seven coalition MKs voting with the opposition. Five MKs from Labor, Ophir Pines-Paz, Yuli Tamir, Amir Peretz, Shelly Yachimovich and Eitan Cabel, and two from Habayit Hayehudi, Orbach and Orlev, voted against the measure.

Some of the Labor ministers and deputy ministers who removed themselves from the plenum two weeks ago because of their opposition to the land reform bill - thereby causing Netanyahu to put off the vote - all voted in favor yesterday as Kadima MKs booed them.

The Labor ministers' and deputies' about faces were the result of a compromise reached between Labor chairman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Netanyahu. The same compromise also provided the cover for Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud) to vote in favor, as did Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi).

The compromise reached before the vote stated that instead of the 800,000 dunams (200,000 acres) of land to be sold to private hands, only half that would be privatized by 2014, and the rest would only be sold later.

In addition to the gradual sale, a ministerial committee headed by Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias (Shas) would be established within 60 days to examine the new law and propose legislative changes - which would be brought before the Knesset at the beginning of its winter session. Ya'alon and Hershkowitz would both be members of the committee.

MK Carmel Shama (Likud), who chaired the committee behind the land reform, said the compromise was in name only.

"There is no change whatsoever in the law due to the compromise, even if we look for it with a sophisticated microscope," he said.

Shama said there was no possibility of selling over 400,000 dunams in the next five years.

"The only change is in the position of the Labor ministers who turned into supporters of the reform," he said.

Kadima concentrated its attacks yesterday on Labor, saying the party had "finally reached the end of its road, abandoned its founders and is directly responsible for privatizing the nation's lands ... This is how it looks when a party that lacks power profits from the land of the Jewish people in exchange for a seat in the government."

Pines-Paz said the party's support for the bill showed "the final failure of the Labor party." He called the parliamentary deals behind the vote "a rotten, frightening, mafia-style compromise."