The Many Deaths of Israel's Basic Law on Social Rights

For nearly 20 years, Knesset members have been trying, and failing, to pass a law that spells out and guarantees Israel's essential social rights. They have been voted down every time.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Or Kashti
Or Kashti

With the opening of the winter session of Knesset at the beginning of November 2011, Knesset members had a golden opportunity to harness the momentum of the recent social-justice protests and translate it into parliamentary action. That movement, which had drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets, led to debates and the formation of Knesset committees, and especially to proposed bills that aspired for a more just, less polarized society.

One of the first proposals discussed in that Knesset session was a move to adopt a Basic Law on Social Rights, a bill sponsored by many MKs from a variety of parties. The subsequent rallying of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government to vote down the bill marked yet another chapter in the opposition, many years in the making, to defining Israelis' social rights via legislation.

The proposal to formulate a new Basic Law, which would obligate the state to create the basic conditions enabling every citizen to enjoy a respectable way of life, wasn't a knee-jerk response to the social-justice protests. Its first proposal didn’t occur at any point in the 18th Knesset ending on Tuesday. It was back in March 1994, when the 13th Knesset was in session, that the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee drafted three proposals for new Basic Laws: the Basic Law on Due Process Rights, the Basic Law on the Freedom of Expression and Association and the Basic Law on Social Rights.

Last July, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel published a report analyzing the methods past governments have used to cut public services. That report, "Between Realization and Dehydration: Israeli Governments' Methods for Draining Social Services," says that in 1996 the three new Basic Law proposals were passed by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and sent to the Knesset plenum for a second and third reading. They were then buried because of that year's early election and a lack of support from the post-election governing coalition, which was Netanyahu's first term in office. Since then, in every Knesset, identical or very similar proposals have been made. They have been voted down every time.

On November 2, 2011, Meretz head MK Zahava Gal-On sponsored a bill. She was joined by fellow party MKs Ilan Gilon and Nitzan Horowitz as well as MKs Eitan Cabel (Labor), Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Shlomo Molla (then Kadima, now Hatnuah). The bill states that every Israeli resident has "the right to have their basic needs guaranteed to enable them to live in human dignity." These "basic needs" in the bill include salary and working conditions, education, health, housing and social welfare.

The bill also states that these rights should be provided in accordance with the state's economic capability. Also included in the bill were clauses defending workers' rights to organize and strike, as well as prohibiting discrimination in employment.

"On the heels of the social justice protest last summer, today is the test of the government's intentions and seriousness," said Gal-On during the Knesset debate. "The Israeli public woke up this summer and understood that our economic way of doing things wasn't working for them, but against them A vast majority of the public understands that social ills aren't the result of some higher power, a natural disaster or the global economy. In the past 20 years the top two deciles accumulated wealth at the expense of the middle and lower classes and the government shirked its social responsibility. In another few minutes we will see who is for social justice and who is against it, because if we believe in social justice, we need to put them into the Basic Law on Social Rights," she said.

MK Amir Peretz (then of Labor, now of Hatnuah) recounted his own long, personal battle to enact a Basic Law on Social Rights, having proposed a very similar bill in earlier Knesset terms since 1997. Peretz told the Knesset about one of his earlier attempts to promote legislation promoting social rights, and how he was voted down.

"Wonder of wonders, something astonishing happened," said Peretz. "The one thing [staunchly secular] Shinui and [Haredi] Shas agreed upon, for different reasons, was how to reject the Basic Law of Social Rights."

Peretz also addressed the prime minister, who was on hand for the debate.
"I've been personally trying, for 15 years already, to pass this law," Peretz told Netanyahu. "But especially when you talk about the need to address the social justice protests, it would be a fitting time to bring back this Basic Law after it was left for dead for so many years."

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) answered Peretz on behalf of the government.

"There is no doubt that we should really be thinking about whether it's appropriate, in a 63-year-old country, to have a Basic Law for certain social rights," Erdan said.

But the government, he said, had already listened, and responded by creating the Trajtenberg Committee, which examined and proposed solutions to Israel's socioeconomic problems. Since the bill's sponsors hadn't waited for the governing coalition to formulate its position on the issue, Erdan said, they had decided to oppose the bill.

For the preliminary reading of the bill, 44 MKs voted in favor, including 27 Kadima MKs – almost the entire Kadima party faction. Seven Labor Party MKs also supported the bill including Shelly Yacimovich and Isaac Herzog, along with Meretz's three MKs, three Hadash MKs, United Arab List-Ta’al's three MKs and one, solitary Likud MK, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.

Fifty-four MKs voted against the bill, including 24 from Likud (among them Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Kahlon, Silvan Shalom and Gideon Sa'ar), 12 Yisrael Beiteinu MKs (including Stas Misezhnikov, Alex Miller and Anastassia Michaeli), nine Shas MKs (including Interior Minister Eli Yishai), all five MKs from United Torah Judaism (including Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman) and two MKS apiece from Atzmaut and Habayit Hayehudi.

Since the failure of the bill to pass its initial reading in November 2011, several Knesset members have proposed it one more time.

The Knesset.Credit: Ahikam Seri

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