The Jerusalem Post
Has the coalition lost its moral high ground?
Prime Minister Bennett’s unruly alliance has faced multiple defeats in the Knesset, leaving its MKs raising questions
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the opposition celebrated on Thursday morning, when Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy announced that a controversial bill that would increase the size of the selection committee for religious court judges fell by a 51 to 51 vote, due to his own mistake in voting against it.
Opposition MKs applauded and reveled in their victory and gave Netanyahu high fives, making him drop the English-language magazines he had been reading. It was 10 a.m., eight hours after deliberations on the bill began, and 18 hours after the session of the Knesset plenum began at 4 p.m. the previous day.
The obviously exhausted, 70-year-old Knesset speaker had also made verbal errors when introducing the vote, before mistakenly pushing the “no” button on his screen. But at least he was there for the vote. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett faced criticism inside his coalition for not showing up.
Coalition MKs dragged their suitcases full of clothes and pillows out of their offices, where they barely slept, and went home for the weekend, frustrated.
“I admit I’m depressed, but I’ll be back here next week,” a coalition MK said in front of the elevator.
The vote was the fifth embarrassment for the narrow, 61-MK coalition over the past three weeks. Last Tuesday morning, the controversial family citizenship bill was defeated 59-59, following a last-minute shift by Yamina rebel MK Amichai Chikli. A week earlier, his fellow Yamina MK Abir Kara was caught voting twice on a bill that would have easily passed anyway.
On Wednesday, voting on a controversial bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 50 gr. of cannabis or 15 cannabis seeds for individual recreational use was postponed at the last minute, because the coalition lacked a majority.
A Basic Law for the rotation government that was set to come to a vote later Wednesday was taken off the agenda, because it required 61 MKs to pass it, and Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak had tested positive for COVID-19.
Luckily for the coalition, there will be no votes on anything controversial next week, due to the observance of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. But there will be plenty more before the Knesset begins its summer recess on August 6.
Whatever momentum the coalition had when the government was formed a month ago is now gone. A perception that two-and-a-half years of political paralysis have ended has also departed, now that it is clear that any of the coalition’s MKs can hold it hostage on any issue.
Coalition MKs in the Knesset cafeteria even questioned whether they had lost the moral high ground that they enjoyed when they deposed Netanyahu and promised to focus purely on professionalism and helping the public. They admitted that taking revenge against Netanyahu and the opposition for the all-night filibusters and for voting down bills both sides supported had become a central consideration in the coalition’s decision-making.
The heads of the coalition faced sharp criticism from even the most anti-Netanyahu pundits for giving the coalition an unprecedented advantage in key Knesset committees, like Finance and Economy. The Likud was allotted significantly fewer slots in key committees than a 30-MK faction deserves. Haaretz political analyst Michael Hauser-Tov called the coalition heads greedy, and Channel 13 analyst Raviv Drucker accused them of “acting more Bibi-like than Bibi.”
The duel between Netanyahu and Bennett in the Knesset plenum on Monday over their handling of the coronavirus, Iran and Jordan provided plenty of drama but little contrast. MKs said afterward that when Bennett and Netanyahu took turns bombastically attacking each other, the veteran politician and his protégé were strikingly indistinguishable.
That was also the case with the coalition and the opposition on Wednesday, the first day of voting on bills submitted by individual MKs since the new government was formed. Members of the opposition voted against bills sponsored by coalition MKs even if they had earlier endorsed them, and coalition members voted down bills sponsored by opposition MKs, even if they had recently signed on to them as cosponsors.
Coalition MKs justified their “no” votes on some of the bills by saying that they needed to be coordinated with the government. For instance, a bill that would provide government funds to family members of the Meron disaster obviously needed to go through the Finance Ministry. And a bill to split the role of the attorney-general sponsored by Religious Zionist Party MK Simcha Rothman is part of the agenda of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who needs more time to implement it.
“We’re not using our votes as revenge,” a source in the coalition said. “It’s not a
matter of morality. It’s about the proper mechanism for approving legislation.”
But some of the bills were opposed for no reason other than the name and party affiliation of the MK at the top of them.
For example, a bill proposed by Likud MK Avi Dichter and Religious Zionist Party MK Orit Struck that would remove the citizenship of a terrorist who receives a stipend from the Palestinian Authority was cosponsored by 19 coalition MKs, including Sa’ar and coalition chairwoman Idit Silman.
Silman said the Likud blocked the passage of the citizenship bill that the Likud
had recently voted to advance, and there was no reason for the coalition parties to treat Likud-sponsored legislation any better.
“I will see what they did with the citizenship bill and learn from them,” she said. “They can’t call themselves rightwing and ask us to vote for right-wing bills, after they voted against the citizenship bill.”
One opposition MK said he supported New Hope faction chairwoman Sharren Haskel’s cannabis decriminalization bill but voted against it because it was important for Israelis to see that the bill’s passage was blocked by Ra’am (United Arab List) leader Mansour Abbas, whose political power cannot be underestimated.
Abbas’s party initiated a coalition crisis on Sunday that Bennett ensured would be resolved by the end of the day. But when it came time for Abbas to return the favor, he asked Haskel to postpone her bill, and she had no choice but to comply.
After that vote, an opposition MK was seen telling a coalition official: “You didn’t want to be Bibi’s slave, and now you’re Abbas’s slave.”
The bill that kept the MKs up all night Wednesday was intended to add Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin to the selection committee for religious court judges. MKs complained that just like in the past, when bills were raised just for Netanyahu, this one was intended just for Elkin, who is the ministerial liaison to the Knesset
and one of the architects of the coalition.
Likud MK Galit Distal Atbaryan said in Monday’s meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee that MKs should not be doing anything for Elkin, after he admitted in an interview with Yediot Aharonot last weekend that he broke up his family in order to marry his parliamentary assistant. She was told in response that she cannot make such a disparaging comment, because the man she idolizes, Netanyahu, has admitted that he was not loyal to his wife.
Coalition and opposition MKs will continue to compete in the months ahead, not only over the passage of bills but also over the moral high ground. Whoever emerges successful will have a true reason to celebrate. •