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Analysis

As failure follows failure, coalition in uphill battle against inexperience

An untested prime minister, a huge cabinet and 20 neophyte MKs brought in under the Norwegian Law have caused the government a string of painful losses

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting at the Knesset, on July 19, 2021.  (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting at the Knesset, on July 19, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The failures came in quick, maddening succession. One bill after another crashed in the Knesset plenum, sometimes from laughable and embarrassing errors by coalition lawmakers. Some pundits labeled it the worst string of legislative losses incurred by any ruling coalition in the Knesset’s history.

That was last week. And it was painful to watch.

There was the cannabis legalization law, a bill long championed by New Hope’s MK Sharren Haskel. It had already won the government’s preliminary approval with a vote in the cabinet’s legislation committee; now it was the Knesset’s turn. After a day-long filibuster by the opposition on Wednesday, all seemed set. Israel would finally, at long last, legalize personal-use marijuana.

But just before the vote, it seemed to suddenly dawn on the coalition leadership that they didn’t have the support of Ra’am, the conservative Islamic party deeply suspicious of pot legalization.

“You’re condemning your community to lives of crime,” Haskel urged the Arab lawmakers at the last minute. “Cannabis usage among Arabs is at 45%.” She warned that their opposition to legalizing the plant “is destroying the future of your young people, to be lawyers, doctors — they can’t even work as bus drivers with a criminal record.”

But Ra’am refused to budge.

In a strange sight, Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas used his allotted minutes at the Knesset podium to publicly ask Haskel to withdraw her bill for two weeks so the party could study the proposal — in a spirit of “cooperation,” he assured.

Haskel was forced to agree — not behind closed doors, quietly, as might be expected between coalition partners, but at the Knesset podium in front of television cameras and snickering opposition lawmakers.

Then came the amendments to the Basic Law: Government that would set down the final legal structure for the new government, closing some gaps from last year’s legislation and setting the new bifurcated parity government on a firmer footing. It was only when the bill reached the plenum that coalition leaders noticed they didn’t have a majority. MKs were simply missing.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, after a grueling week of filibusters and failures, came the most embarrassing moment of them all: In a tight vote on a bill that would have reformed the selection process for rabbinic judges, weakening the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold over the appointments process and allowing more liberal jurists into the religious court system, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy accidentally voted the wrong way. The final vote was a tie, 51 to 51, instead of the expected 52-50 the coalition leadership was confident it would get.

Speaker Mickey Levy in the Knesset on July 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaker Levy quickly called in the Knesset legal adviser’s office and asked to change his vote, but was informed that a plenum vote is always, by law, final. The bill failed.

Self-sabotage

The Likud-led opposition is part of the story. It has adopted a scorched-earth strategy in the Knesset, voting against every bill and measure irrespective of its substance, on the principle that denying the coalition successes is the priority. That strategy has left the coalition with very narrow majorities in most votes — and only if all parts of the eight-faction coalition are rowing in the same direction.

Opposition filibusters, even on the most minor of votes, repeatedly kept coalition MKs up till the early morning hours in the plenum. Levy had scarcely slept the night before when he cast his wrong vote.

Yet the failures last week weren’t really the opposition’s fault. The coalition had the numbers, but couldn’t marshal and manage them effectively. It wasn’t the opposition that neglected to include Ra’am in the drafting process of the cannabis bill, or to ensure full attendance and support for the Basic Law changes. Nothing the opposition did was responsible for Mickey Levy’s wrong vote.

Some of these growing pains are expected. As noted by many, the coalition chair, Yamina MK Idit Silman, is one of the least experienced coalition whips in the Knesset’s history. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s no specific moment in which Silman is clearly responsible for a failure. The return of the pandemic didn’t help; Yesh Atid MK Vladimir Beliak tested positive last week and was sent into quarantine, losing the coalition a crucial vote.

On Thursday afternoon, shortly after his mistaken vote, a frustrated Speaker Levy discovered that coalition leaders, reeling from the loss on the rabbinic judges vote, didn’t know whether there were more items on the plenum agenda for the day. “How disorganized are you?!” he shouted in frustration, and then formally closed the plenum till Monday.

It was a merciful veil of closure over one of the worst parliamentary weeks for any coalition anyone could remember.

Newbies

The government entered the week with Israelis split down the middle over how well it’s doing. A Channel 12 poll last Monday asked Israelis if they were “satisfied” with the government. Answers correlated closely to political views. Self-described center-leftists were 67% satisfied, 23% unsatisfied with the new government; on the right, 32% were satisfied, 61% unsatisfied).

Overall, the split was even: 45% to 45%.

The government appears to be enjoying a grace period, but challenges loom. The pandemic is returning, the budget bill must pass by November 4, and the usual run of crises — witness Sunday’s Temple Mount tensions — are a seemingly ever-present centrifugal force pulling the coalition partners apart.

Israeli security forces stand guard, as a group of Jews visit the Temple Mount (Al-Aqsa) compound in Jerusalem, on July 18, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

How long can the grace period last, given last week’s level of parliamentary dysfunction?

There’s one good reason for coalition leaders to be optimistic — and that’s the apparent reason for the Knesset failures.

As noted, it wasn’t the opposition that drove them. It is the coalition’s own inexperience.

After 12 years of mostly Likud rule, the opposition parties are mostly parliamentary neophytes. New Hope’s cadre of grizzled ex-Likudniks aside, the new government is the first experience in power for most coalition members.

The experience deficit runs from the very top to the very bottom. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his alternate Yair Lapid have both spent the past few years famously uninvolved in parliamentary wheeling and dealing. Bennett has been a cabinet minister for nearly the entirety of the past eight years, while Lapid left his party’s legislating to backbenchers. Bennett and Lapid, then, are nearly as unfamiliar with the Knesset’s ways and procedures as the neophyte Silman. There’s a parliamentary leadership vacuum at the heart of the new coalition.

At the same time, the coalition has sent the vast majority of its experienced members to the cabinet. As a count by the Makor Rishon newspaper showed, fully 36 members of the coalition are ministers or deputy ministers, and of the 24 that remain, just eight have any significant parliamentary experience.

And then there’s the Norwegian Law. To overcome that dearth of manpower in the parliament, the new government expanded the Norwegian Law to enable cabinet ministers to resign temporarily from the Knesset in favor of the next MKs on the list.

Last week saw the 20th MK sworn in under the Norwegian Law rules, fully one-third of the coalition.

The addition of full-time MKs unencumbered by a cabinet post is, in theory, a boon to the Knesset’s ability to do its work. But when combined with the inexperience of the factions from which they hail and their own unfamiliarity with parliamentary work, this vast addition of untested and inexpert manpower has only created a larger management burden for an overstretched and itself under-experienced parliamentary leadership.

MKs missed votes, misunderstood what they were voting on, and have grown frustrated at the long filibusters and constant procedural logjams imposed on them by the opposition and their own inexperience.

A plenary session at the assembly of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, July 14, 2021. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s too soon to say whether last week offered a glimpse at the limits of this coalition — at how it will ultimately fall — or will serve as a wake-up call to the coalition.

What happened last week wasn’t a strategic setback, only a tactical one. The coalition can make up much of the lost ground relatively easily. The rabbinic judges law is expected to return to the plenum as early as this week. The anger at Ra’am over the cannabis bill — among other disagreements — is now being managed behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, faction leaders in the Knesset have started calling on their parties’ cabinet ministers to attend important Knesset votes, even if they don’t have a right to vote. They need the fast availability of the ministers’ experience, the extra hands calling lawmakers to votes or filing quick appeals. Many noticed that Naftali Bennett, who by law cannot resign his Knesset seat, was missing in many of last week’s votes.

The coalition stumbled badly, but is showing signs of having learned lessons from those failures.

Still, there’s precious little wriggle room going forward. There are scarcely two weeks left to the early-August cabinet vote on the state budget law. A fast month of parliamentary work later, the budget must face its first plenum vote.

The coalition can fumble a vote on cannabis; it will not survive a similar fumble on the state budget. If the budget law doesn’t pass by November 4, then by law the Knesset dissolves to new elections.

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