Coalition heads reach compromise on Shabbat bill, but majority not guaranteed

Coalition heads reach compromise on Shabbat bill, but majority not guaranteed

Amended bill would allow gas station’s convenience stores to stay open on Jewish day of rest but would not exempt tourist city of Eilat as some MKs had hoped

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

An 'AM PM' convenience store, which open on Shabbat, in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2016. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
An 'AM PM' convenience store, which open on Shabbat, in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2016. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

In a last-ditch attempt to secure a majority before Monday’s vote, coalition leaders have reached an agreement to soften a controversial bill that would shutter shops on Shabbat, agreeing to exempt convenience stores attached to gas stations from the legislation.

Meeting to set the legislative agenda for the week on Sunday afternoon, the heads of coalition parties agreed to the requests of several lawmakers to allow some shops to open, but rejected an amendment that would have exempted the tourist city of Eilat.

A spokesman for coalition chairman David Amsalem told The Times of Israel that discussions were ongoing, admitting that the current changes did not guarantee full coalition support.

The bill, sponsored by Aryeh Deri, chair of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, 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.

Last month, Yisrael Beytenu faction chairman MK Robert Ilatov said that any attempt to bring the bill to a vote would be opposed by Yisrael Beytenu’s five lawmakers in the Knesset, despite their membership in the coalition. And with its majority standing at just 66 MKs of 120, the coalition cannot afford to lose any more votes.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri at a press conference announcing a new reform for small businesses at the Prime ministers Office in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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, with several Likud and Kulanu MKs announcing their opposition and delaying a final vote on the measure.

After being postponed last week, the vote had been scheduled for Monday afternoon. The agreed-upon changes now mean that it will need to return to committee before a final plenary vote.

Highlighting growing discord within the ruling party over the bill, Likud ministers sparred with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Sunday morning over efforts to oust one of the party’s lawmakers over her intention to vote against the measure.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel slammed a petition filed by Likud leadership to eject MK Sharren Haskel for opposing the bill.

“We are talking about a disproportionate response,” she said, according to a coalition source. “This law is already causing damage to the party and there are many in Likud that think so.”

Struggling to secure parliamentary support for the bill, 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.

“If she doesn’t vote according to the rulings of the party, she cannot continue as a member of Likud,” he said in a Sunday morning statement, citing the Likud faction’s decision to support the bill. “She is helping Likud’s rivals and this goes against the party’s constitution, goals and decisions.”

Likud MK Sharren Haskel attends a discussion at the Knesset Health Committee regarding a reform to ease access to medical cannabis, January 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Backing Gamliel, Regional Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said during the cabinet meeting that there were other ways to persuade Haskel to change her mind, arguing that ousting her from the party was a step too far.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis also expressed dismay at Haskel’s treatment and proposed softening the bill to widen its support, according to Hebrew media reports.

Last week, Akunis, who is rumored to be considering a bid for mayor of the largely secular Tel Aviv, said he had “major issues” with the bill and was still deciding how he would vote in its final reading. “In its current form, this is a bad law for Likud,” he told Hadashot TV news on Thursday, citing exemptions for convenience stores and Eilat as necessary amendments.

Responding to the criticism,  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.”

While kicking Haskel out of Likud would not free up her Knesset seat for another, potentially more pliable, MK, Amsalem is hoping that the threat will pressure Haskel to walk back her opposition. Ousted by the party, she would be unable to run in the Likud primaries before the next election.

Haskel hit back at the attempt, saying that the bill lacked support among the party’s base.

“The mini-market bill is the proposal of a party that barely passes the electoral threshold, yet is trying to force a certain way of life on the entire public,” she said in a dig at the seven-seat Shas party. “This is a law that would discriminate against certain cities and deepen the secular-Haredi rift. The Likud is a diverse party made up of traditional, religious and secular Jews — people who go to synagogue on Shabbat morning and then to a cafe in the afternoon — most of whom oppose the bill.”

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