Coalition deal prevents elections but may just postpone stand-off

Coalition deal prevents elections but may just postpone stand-off

With each side able to claim victory, ministers have agreed to live with their differences by pushing off the threat of early elections, for now

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, and Shas lawmaker Yitzhak Vaknin at a plenum session in the Knesset on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, and Shas lawmaker Yitzhak Vaknin at a plenum session in the Knesset on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The compromise deal reached by ministers Monday night over the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill appears to have ended the immediate threat of early elections, but has not altogether solved the coalition crisis.

It has, however, postponed the stand off, giving coalition members at least another few months of the current government. According to a statement from the Likud, each coalition party has agreed to the plan that allows them to claim victory for now and remain in government, but effectively pushes off the fight until the Summer sitting of the Knesset, which begins at the end of April.

The statement said that the Ministerial Committee for Legislation had agreed “to give each faction freedom to vote on the [conscription] bill according to the position set by the party chair,” on the condition that every member of the party vote alike.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, a vociferous opponent of the bill — which is seen as giving the ultra-Orthodox the ability to dodge the country’s mandatory military draft — had been insistent that his party will oppose it, fueling speculation that a snap election as early as June was all but assured.

He has said that all five of his party’s Knesset members would vote against the bill, including Immigration Minister Sofa Landver, the only member of his party who is both a legislator and a minister.

A minister voting against a government bill could be grounds for dismissal, a move Liberman said would also have spurred him to leave the government. The agreement allows Landver to vote against without facing repercussions. Plus, with Yisrael Beytenu only contributing five of the coalition’s 66 MKs, the bill can still pass without them, given that all the other coalition parties have agreed to support it.

The agreement also states that Liberman, in his role as defense minister, will present the committee with a proposal for a government conscription bill as agreed upon by his ministry, no later than four weeks after the beginning of the Knesset summer sitting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“After that proposal is approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and is passed in its first reading in the Knesset, it will be joined with the bill presented by [Shas] MK Yoav Ben Tzur in preparation for second and third readings,” the agreement says, adding that the final bill will need agreement from all coalition parties.

That agreement may be hard to come by, with Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox at loggerheads over exempting Haredi men from military or national service. If a formulation palatable to both isn’t found, early elections could once again be on the table.

The draft legislation passed in its initial reading Tuesday and is backed by the United Torah Judaism party, which had threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if its bill isn’t passed. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon had threatened in response to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if the budget isn’t passed this week.

Tuesday’s agreement allows for a vote on both the conscription bill and the budget before the Knesset goes on recess on Thursday after the four-month winter sitting.

Sofa Landver at the Knesset on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ministers also agreed to vote on the first reading of the controversial Jewish State bill immediately after the 2019 budget is approved and “if that is not possible,” due to schedule restraints, to vote on the proposal on the first day of the Summer sitting. Like the conscription bill, the final bill will be formulated in coordination with all the coalition parties, who will then be obligated to support it.

In recent days, some Likud lawmakers joined the fray by demanding that the Jewish State bill, which seeks to officially define Israel as a Jewish state and enshrine that definition in the country’s Basic Laws, also be passed before the recess begins.

Including it in the compromise allows the Likud, as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu, to claim a legislative victory

Tuesday’s election-averting agreement finished with a symbolic declaration: “A stable government is a national necessity. All the party heads are obligated to work together so that the government can continue to function for an extended period of time.”

The result is that everyone gets what they want. The ultra-Orthodox get a show of political relevance for their constituents. Yisrael Beytenu gets to claim it stopped the Haredi-drafted version of the bill.

Lastly, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu gets a commitment from all his coalition partners to pass the 2019 budget and — possibly — prevent any early elections before the winter of 2019.

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