Upset by Bid to Change Procedure, MKs Stage Record Filibuster

The opposition returned to the Knesset yesterday to stage a filibuster in the House Committee, a day after having carried out the first boycott of the full assembly in the parliament's history.

The main target of Wednesday's boycott was the debate on the national budget for 2009-2010, which therefore passed its first reading without a nay.

However, the opposition also canceled a debate that had been initiated by 40 of its members on what they termed "the prime minister's confused policy" - a debate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to have attended. They also canceled certain committee sessions.

Opposition MKs say the week's measures continue the protest against several bills submitted by the coalition that would alter Knesset procedure.

In particular, Knesset State Control Committee chairman Yoel Hasson of Kadima canceled his committee's planned discussion on the latest ombudsman's report, in which State Comptroller Micha Lidenstrauss was to have taken part.

Yesterday's filibuster also slowed the budget process: The government was seeking to divvy up the Economic Arrangements Bill accompanying the budget among several different committees; this would speed its passage. But opposition MKs asked so many questions and made such long speeches that the House Committee debate, which started at 11:30 A.M., dragged on for more than eight and a half hours until a break was finally called at 8 P.M.

It was then expected to continue late into the night, with the vote taking place after midnight. The debate was also stormy, with committee chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) even throwing Hasson out of the room at one point.

One of the bills that would alter existing procedure is the so-called Slomianski bill, which would allow Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi) to cede his place in the Knesset to former MK Nissan Slomianski, but to return should he leave the government.

Another would make it easier for MKs to split from an existing faction while maintaining their party funding, and a third would require a majority of 55 MKS, rather than 50, to pass legislation with budgetary implications.

The opposition says the bills benefit specific people, so discussion of them would seriously harm the Knesset's standing. Opposition MKs accuse the coalition of "acting rapaciously" and warn that if Netanyahu's team insists on bringing these bills to a vote, the protest measures will escalate.

The parliamentary revolt is being led by Kadima, the largest opposition party, and attempts by Speaker Reuven Rivlin to resolve the dispute have failed. A mediation meeting between the opposition and coalition planned for Wednesday at Rivlin's office was canceled after Kadima insisted that faction chairwoman MK Dalia Itzik represent her party in the discussion.

Rivlin, who had already met at the beginning of the week with the Knesset faction heads, wanted to hold the discussion in a different forum, of party heads; he was hoping Kadima would be represented by its chairwoman, MK Tzipi Livni. Kadima MKs insisted that Itzik come to the discussion - and the meeting was canceled.

"There is no point in meeting again with the faction heads because Rivlin has already met with them and nothing budged," a source close to Rivlin said on Wednesday. "He had hoped that in a senior forum of party heads it would be possible to advance a solution.

"He's busy carrying ladders in the hope that either the coalition or the opposition will climb down from the tree," said Rivlin's associate.

Rivlin, however, has said he doesn't like at least some of the laws the government is proposing because "the rules of the game must not be changed while the game is being played." He has proposed that the bills, if they are passed, apply only in the next Knesset, or that some of them be brought for a first reading and then frozen.

MK Yohanan Plesner of Kadima said on Wednesday: "The coalition is breaking the rules of the game and therefore we are protesting and reacting with a series of parliamentary moves until the crisis is ended. All of the opposition factions are constantly discussing the developments and we already have modes of action for the days to come."

Not all opposition members were happy with Wednesday's boycott: MK Ronit Tirosh of Kadima, for instance, was furious when she, like all opposition members, was told to pull proposals for legislation that had been submitted for discussion in the plenum. Tirosh, who had wanted to discuss a law prohibiting the import of animal pelts, was forced to forget about the discussion. She said the protest measures "are too sweeping and too severe."

Sources in Likud also accused the opposition of irresponsibility. "They decided that for them the public that sent them to the Knesset doesn't count and they haven't expressed their position in the plenum, as they are required to do in the name of their mission and in their capacity as the opposition," one source said. "This is their problem."

Yesterday's filibuster did not necessarily make the coalition any happier: MK Zion Fanian (Likud), for instance, charged that "the behavior of some Kadima members was a disgrace. It shamed the discussion and did not add to the honor of the Knesset and its MKs."

Nevertheless, filibusters may prove more common than boycotts as the battle proceeds. As one Knesset source noted on Wednesday: "The opposition made use of its Judgment Day weapon on minor things."