Budget, PM’s term limits are on agenda as Knesset opens turbulent winter session

As coalition works to pass budget by November 14 deadline, parliament to open with speeches and no-confidence votes; battle over makeup of committees shows no sign of ending

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Knesset’s winter session was set to formally open Monday, with the looming deadline to pass the state budget constituting the main challenge facing the government in what is shaping to be an ill-tempered and fractious few months in Israel’s parliament.

Failure to pass the pair of budget bills in the Knesset by a deadline recently extended to November 14 would automatically dissolve the parliament and trigger elections.

The budget is a crucial test for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government as it seeks to solidify its hold on power.

Last month the Knesset gave its approval to the 2021-2022 state budget in its first readings in a major milestone for the coalition. The bills were passed after understandings were reached among coalition parties on various issues under contention.

The bills are now under further review and must pass their second and third readings in the plenum to become law.

In the coming weeks, Knesset committees will hold marathon talks on the Budget Law and its accompanying Arrangements Law. Parties and lawmakers will jockey for influence, with the knowledge that the fragile coalition, with its narrow majority, could fall on a single vote.

The Plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The last time Israel approved a state budget was for 2019, before the country became embroiled in a two-year political gridlock.

Last month, Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas reportedly said privately that the government was failing to fulfill promises it had made toward the Arab public upon its formation. In a potential threat, the leader of Ra’am, whose support is critical to the coalition, said that the current government “is at a crossroads” over its failure to deliver to the Arab public. Some analysts saw the leaked comments as an intentional message to coalition leaders to strengthen Abbas’s negotiating position.

Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 12 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Knesset committees will be operating amid a spat between the government and the opposition over what the latter claims is under-representation on the panels.

After the opposition attempted to block the formation of the Knesset committees at a number of opportunities, the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee in July approved the makeup of the parliament’s permanent committees without the opposition’s agreement.

Coalition whip Idit Silman of the Yamina party said at the time that the opposition had been offered the chairmanship of four permanent committees and two special committees, as well as five deputy chair positions in the various committees. Likud dismissed the offer as “unfair.”

Idit Silman at the Knesset, on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset House Committee was set on Monday to discuss the makeup of the Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, the State Audit Committee, and the Science and Technology Committee. However, the opposition was still refusing to negotiate on the matter.

Another issue set to dog the upcoming session of the Knesset was Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s expected proposal of legislation to impose term limits for the prime minister’s position and to prevent an individual under indictment from serving in the role.

The minister’s New Hope party has said that under the planned legislation, there would be a cap on serving no more than eight years in total as prime minister. It noted that the proposed bill would not be applied retroactively, and therefore would not prevent opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu from again running for office, despite his cumulatively serving more than 15 years in the role between 1996 and 2021.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on July 6, 2021. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

But Netanyahu would be affected by a second bill submitted by the party, which would prevent a person indicted on criminal charges from serving as prime minister. Netanyahu is currently on trial in three corruption cases, though he denies any wrongdoing.

Some members of the coalition have expressed their unease at the proposed legislation, with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked voicing her opposition to it and others saying it will be seen as personally targeting Netanyahu because it would bar him from returning to power — a move that would not sit well with right-wing voters.

Opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset from a special COVID-19 quarantine area in the guest gallery during a plenum session on the state budget, September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Monday’s session will open with a speech by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, followed by President Isaac Herzog. Bennett will then take the podium for a speech ahead of a response by opposition chief Netanyahu.

According to the Maariv daily, a number of members of Israel’s record-breaking Olympic and Paralympic teams will attend the session and a reception will be held in their honor.

At the conclusion of the speeches, the Knesset will be presented with two motions of no-confidence in the government from Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ultra-Orthodox factions, which are expected to fail.

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