As Knesset returns, decisions and deadlines loom

As Knesset returns, decisions and deadlines loom

The coming legislative season will deliver a new president and, perhaps, an official definition for the term 'Jewish state'

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

An illustrative photo of a vote in the Knesset. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
An illustrative photo of a vote in the Knesset. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

One hundred and twenty MKs are returning to work Monday for the start of the Knesset’s summer session. In typical fashion, the session will launch with the traditional bevy of opposition-proposed no-confidence motions. Once these fail in the plenum, the Knesset will start tackling a densely packed legislative agenda.

The parliament’s first order of business will be to bring to an end the embarrassing spectacle surrounding the chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The committee is one of the most important institutions in the entire edifice of the Israeli state, the main body through which the people’s representatives, hailing from across the political spectrum, supervise and audit Israel’s powerful and sometimes secretive security services.

So it is more than a little worrying that the committee hasn’t been able to function for over seven months because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid have been unable to agree on the identity of its next chairman. Netanyahu prefers Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, a former committee chair himself, while Lapid has sought to appoint a close confidant, MK Ofer Shelah, to the powerful post.

For Netanyahu, keeping such a critical security post in the Likud is essential to his governing strategy. He has made it a point to keep all foreign policy and defense posts, whether in the cabinet or in parliament, in the hands of his Likud-Beytenu faction. Meanwhile, Lapid wants to win for his nascent Yesh Atid party its first meaningful control of any aspect of Israel’s defense or foreign policy establishment.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, May 1, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, May 1, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Without a chairman, the committee cannot meet, and for many months failed to approve the 2014 defense budget — until a temporary workaround was devised by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. That solution saw temporary — indeed, single-meeting — chairpersons appointed to the committee for the purpose of approving urgent allocations.

The impasse has reached the High Court of Justice, which has heard complaints from groups advocating good governance, among others. And a deadline approaches: The Knesset has told the High Court that it will appoint a chairman to the committee by the start of the summer session on Monday.

A compromise has been reached between the two largest coalition factions that would see a rotating chairmanship, with the Likud appointing the first chairman, and Yesh Atid appointing a replacement roughly 18 months later. In part to resolve other coalition pressures, Netanyahu appears set to appoint Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Coalition Chairman Yariv Levin to hold jointly — perhaps in their own nine-month rotations — the Likud period at the helm of the committee.

If true, the deal marks a modest victory for Netanyahu. Likud will control the committee first, and 18 months are a very long time in Israeli politics.

Yet even late Sunday, with Netanyahu on a state visit to Japan, the prime minister and his finance minister had yet to finalize the deal.

[Update: The Knesset House Committee approved a deal at noon on Monday according to which the Likud will hold the committee for the remainder of the current Knesset, rotating between Elkin and Levin as chairmen; Hanegbi will be appointed deputy foreign minister instead of Elkin; and Yesh Atid will receive a deputy minister post in an unspecified ministry.]

The dangerous politics of religion and state

The impasse over the FADC chairmanship is a powerful example of how fractious Netanyahu’s coalition has been throughout its first year. Yet for all the partisan bickering that filled Israel’s newspapers since the government was formed in March of last year, it is nevertheless an inescapable fact that this government has also achieved a great deal: passing a landmark governance bill that raised the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset, an unprecedented — if criticized — reform of the ultra-Orthodox draft, and a Basic Law requiring a national referendum for relinquishing sovereign Israeli territory in the framework of a peace deal.

It accomplished much, but it also faced a progression of ever-worsening coalition crises, especially over the now-failed US-brokered peace talks. With the process with the Palestinians now all but dead, “the most important, most sensitive and most politically dangerous issue[s]” in the upcoming session will likely relate to religion and state, according to a very senior coalition source.

That will likely include attempts by the Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties to enact a civil marriage law, expand recognition for same-sex couples, reform and shrink the state rabbinate, expand access to conversion for non-Jews, including by opening up the state conversion system to competition from an expanded circle of recognized rabbis, and more. For some of these measures, the Jewish Home party will be a close ally; for others, a bitter foe.

The new number one

About halfway through the session, or sometime in mid- to late June — the exact date has not been set — the Knesset’s 120 members will elect Israel’s next president, who will succeed the outgoing nonagenarian Shimon Peres.

Likud MK and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: Flash90)
Likud MK and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: Flash90)

So far, only two candidates have submitted the signatures of 10 MKs required to formally enter the race: Labor MK and former defense minister Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer and Likud MK and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin.

Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud), Hatnua MK Meir Sheetrit, Nobel laureate chemist Dan Shechtman and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner have all announced or otherwise indicated their interest in running, but have not yet submitted signatures in their favor.

The race is still very much an open one. While Rivlin holds a commanding lead in public opinion polls over other potential candidates, it is not the public who elects the president, but the MKs themselves. And in the Knesset, Rivlin may have a tough fight ahead of him. After a public falling out with Netanyahu a few years ago — a falling out that cost him his speakership — even his own Likud colleagues are not necessarily on his side.

Netanyahu himself is still seeking a candidate for the presidency, and is said to be frustrated at the crop of candidates currently in the running.

Putting the ‘Jewish’ in ‘Jewish state’

One of the key legislative efforts of this session will be the advancement of a bill that would anchor Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people in a constitutional Basic Law.

Partly in response to the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the Jews’ nation-state, and partly in the wake of two decades of judicial rulings that, many on the right believe, highlight the need to clarify and specify what the “Jewish” part actually means when Israel is described as “Jewish and democratic,” the bill already has multiple drafts circulating.

Leader of the Hatnua party and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni leads a party meeting on December 30, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Leader of the Hatnua party and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni leads a party meeting on December 30, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has railed against the more right-wing version of the bill, currently being proposed by MKs Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), but is nevertheless working on her own version of the bill. Indeed, several months ago she appointed the renowned constitutional law scholar Prof. Ruth Gavison to develop a draft of such a bill for submission to the Knesset. Gavison’s efforts have already produced policy papers and think tank conferences at institutions on all sides of the political spectrum, from the Van Leer Institute on the left to the Institute for Zionist Strategies on the right.

In short, while the bill is certain to be contentious, it is also very likely to advance relatively easily through the legislative process.

By the end of this short summer session, which will last less than three months, the Knesset will deliver a new president, restore a functioning Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and, in order of diminishing likelihood, pass some dramatic religious reforms; offer up a few photogenic coalition crises; and perhaps even forge an unprecedented, broad agreement among a majority of the country’s elected representatives as to what exactly Israelis mean when they say they are citizens of the “Jewish state.”

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