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Bill to expand tax on plastic bags divides Netanyahu-led opposition

Former PM reverses decision to give his Likud party a free vote on proposal after pushback from ultra-Orthodox allies, who charge it will hurt the poor and large families

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri during a meeting in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri during a meeting in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday reversed a decision to let members of his Likud party vote their conscience on a bill to charge Israeli consumers for plastic bags at stores nationwide, following pushback from allied ultra-Orthodox factions.

A law passed in 2016 requires customers to pay 10 agorot ($0.03) per plastic bag at supermarkets. The legislation also banned the distribution of certain types of polymer bags.

Under a bill submitted by MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzano of the coalition’s Yesh Atid party, all businesses, not only supermarkets, would be required to charge 10 agorot per bag.

Noting the decline in plastic bag use since the law took effect, Lahav-Hertzano urged Likud members to back the proposal.

“This is an important step in the fight against the climate crisis and it’s not for nothing that Likud announced a free vote,” he wrote on Twitter.

The proposal was denounced by Haredi lawmakers, with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Eichler saying it would disproportionately hurt the poor and families with lots of kids.

“Let it be clear, if Likud grants a free vote… United Torah Judaism members will see it as official permission to vote on every law that comes up in accordance with their practical considerations and not per Likud’s instructions,” he said.

MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzano in the Knesset, May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Netanyahu that his faction and UTJ would feel free to act as they pleased if Likud went ahead, according to Hebrew media reports. Both Shas and UTJ are part of a Likud-led opposition bloc that also includes the far-right Religious Zionism party.

Netanyahu later reversed the decision to grant his party members a free vote and video from the Knesset plenum showed him fuming at Likud MK Gila Gamliel, a former environmental protection minister, for submitting a similar bill.

“This is unraveling the opposition. What we do need this law for?” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster.

The bill is due to come up for an initial plenum reading later Wednesday.

The feuding among opposition members came as the coalition also finds itself divided, with a lawmaker from Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and Whote party declaring he would stop voting with the government in protest of proposed reforms in public transportation and agriculture.

A senior Blue and White source later insisted the party remains committed to the coalition despite MK Michael Biton’s announcement.

Biton’s move marked a fresh headache for the coalition and came just days after Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi reversed her brief decision to stop backing the government. The coalition and the opposition have been at parity in the Knesset with 60 seats each since Idit Silman, a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, jumped ship from the coalition last month.

The government is an unwieldy amalgam of right-wing, centrist and leftist parties, and includes the Islamist Ra’am, and has struggled to find a balance between the different groups since coming into power last year, especially in recent months.

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