Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned members of his Likud party on Monday not to vote against a controversial proposal to shutter mini-markets on Shabbat, as the coalition headed to an all-night vote with a razor-thin lead over the opposition.
“Whoever votes against the mini-markets bill is in favor of toppling the government,” Netanyahu told MKs during a closed-door Likud faction meeting, according to leaks to Hebrew media.
The prime minister has supported the bill, championed by Shas leader and ultra-Orthodox coalition partner Aryeh Deri, over the objections of some Likud ministers and party members.
The coalition was set to debate the proposed legislation overnight, with just 59 lawmakers supporting the government position and 58 opposed.
In a statement to the press before the meeting, the prime minister had signaled the final votes to pass the proposed legislation into law could be postponed if the coalition could not muster a majority. But reports later said the votes would go ahead as planned.
Earlier on Monday, the coalition’s majority was again thrown into doubt by the death of Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev’s mother.
Normally, that majority stands at 66 of 120 MKs. But with five Yisrael Beytenu MKs vowing to oppose or abstain from the bill along with Likud MK Sharren Haskel and Kulanu MK Tali Ploskov, the absence of Yogev, who will be laying his mother to rest as the Knesset session begins, made the vote neck-and-neck.
The opposition has planned some 14 hours of debate before the two-odd hours of voting, placing the final votes in the early morning, after an all-night legislative marathon.
At the weekly Zionist Union faction meeting, opposition whip Yoel Hasson said that the opposition will set “the parameters of the debate, the length and the time of the vote.”
“We plan to use all the tools at our disposal,” he said.
The final votes had been delayed last Monday, when the death of Likud MK Yehudah Glick’s wife left the coalition without a majority.
In a last-ditch attempt to secure a majority, coalition leaders reached an agreement Sunday to soften the bill, agreeing to exempt convenience stores attached to gas stations from the legislation but rejecting a proposed amendment that would have exempted the tourist city of Eilat.
The bill, sponsored by Deri, would grant his Interior Ministry the power to oversee and reject local ordinances relating to whether business may remain open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that runs from Friday evening until Saturday night.
It passed its first reading last month after Deri threatened to quit the government, issuing an ultimatum hours before the vote conditioning his continued tenure as minister on its passage. But it has since languished on the coalition chairman’s desk as Deri sought to secure the majority needed to pass the measure.
Last week, the Shas leader unsuccessfully sought to bring Glick (Likud) to the Knesset hours after the death of his wife. He also tried to have one of his own ministers resign from the Knesset — Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay was hospitalized for most of last week and therefore unable to vote — so that another Shas member could take his place.
Azoulay was present in the Knesset on Monday.
Highlighting growing discord within the ruling party over the bill, Likud ministers sparred with Netanyahu on Sunday morning over ultimately abortive efforts to oust Haskel, the party member who intends to vote against the measure.
Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, Regional Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis all criticized efforts to eject Haskel.
Struggling to secure parliamentary support for the bill, coalition whip David Amsalem had filed a petition Saturday night with the party’s top internal court seeking to eject Haskel, claiming that her opposition risks bringing down the government.
While kicking Haskel out of Likud would not free up her Knesset seat for another, potentially more pliable, MK, Amsalem was hoping that the threat would pressure Haskel to walk back her opposition. Had she been ousted by the party, she would have been unable to run in the Likud primaries before the next election.
Amsalem’s attorney reportedly told Haskel to “grow up” during a heated hearing on Monday. But later in the day, the internal Likud court rejected the request to expel Haskel from the party.
Responding to the criticism on Sunday, Netanyahu told the ministers that the bill, along with the Yisrael Beytenu proposal to impose the death penalty on terrorists and the yearly budget, “needed to be passed.”
During Monday’s faction meeting, the prime minister conceded that the legislation — along with Yisrael Beytenu’s controversial death penalty bill — was “forced on him,” according to the reports. He told the Likud lawmakers the Shabbat bill would not change the situation on the ground in Israeli cities, the reports said.