Opposition rejects compromise on contentious bills

Opposition rejects compromise on contentious bills

Labor head Herzog says PM's offer to extend discussions by one day is 'too little too late,' boycott by opposition MKs still on

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, center, speaking to the press in the Knesset alongside Shas leader Aryeh Deri, left, and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, seated far-right, March 10, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Labor leader Isaac Herzog, center, speaking to the press in the Knesset alongside Shas leader Aryeh Deri, left, and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, seated far-right, March 10, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Knesset opposition head Isaac Herzog on Monday rejected a compromise offer by the governing coalition on a series of controversial votes, saying the attempt to stave off a boycott of the session was “too little too late.”

On Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition had offered an extra day of Knesset discussions in the hopes of coaxing the opposition to attend debates over the contentious Governance Bill, Equal Service Bill, and Referendum Bill.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said Netanyahu had agreed overnight to extend discussions on the three bills until Thursday. The offer was aimed at addressing fears by the opposition that the bills were being rushed through Knesset channels with highly irregular haste, in what opponents said was an undemocratic effort to ensure their approval.

The three bills under discussion have engendered heated debate among lawmakers and the wider civil society over the wide-ranging changes they would bring.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The Governance Bill would increase the electoral threshold for political parties to enter the Knesset, which critics claim would force the Arab parties, which are small, to unite or be disenfranchised. Discussions on the bill were set to start Monday morning, with debate and votes through the night and a final vote on the bill slated for Tuesday morning at 10 a.m.

The Equal Service Bill would establish a new conscription policy for the ultra-Orthodox community, levying criminal sanctions on draft dodgers. Debate would last until the final vote slated for Wednesday at 10 a.m.

The Referendum Bill would establish a semi-constitutional Basic Law requiring a national referendum for any land withdrawal in a future peace accord. A similar law was passed in 2010, but its legitimacy was challenged in the High Court of Justice, since only Basic Laws can take power away from the Knesset. The bill faces a final vote on Thursday morning.

Edelstein said both sides of the debate had gone too far in their political quarreling over the proposals. “I’m glad the coalition has agreed (to back down from confrontation) and expect the opposition to also (do so),” he said.

“There is no place for boycotts in the Israeli Knesset,” Edelstein added. “A boycott on the plenum is a boycott on democracy.”

But Herzog brushed aside the offer, telling Army Radio on Monday morning that Edelstein was “talking about adding several hours to the debate on Thursday. It’s ridiculous to add a few more ‘crumbs’ of debate to such important issues.”

Herzog called the coalition’s conduct on the bills “undemocratic” and said “the Knesset speaker should have used his authority to stop the debates.”

The coalition has bunched the three bills together in order to ensure their approval by all coalition parties in a package deal of sorts. A letter committing factions to supporting the three laws was drafted over the weekend by the coalition parties.

A boycott of plenum debates by opposition parties, 52 MKs in all, would give proceedings something of an illegitimate appearance and would be highly undesirable to the government on such contested laws.

According to the original schedule, the marathon week of debates and votes on the bills would end by early Thursday morning. The coalition’s push for the bills’ fast passage was meant to preempt a delay of the votes until after the upcoming spring recess.

Herzog had promised Sunday to take drastic, unprecedented steps in the fight against the legislation.

At the beginning of Sunday’s meeting in Tel Aviv between heads of the opposition factions, Herzog threatened to “take steps that have not been seen since the establishment of the Knesset,” and argued that the laws are driven by hatred, discrimination, and a desire to push parties aside and shut down debate in the Knesset, Israel Radio reported.

Haviv Rettig Gur and Lazar Berman contributed to this report. 

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