Coalition tensions, enlistment bill loom large as Knesset reconvenes Monday

New legislative session will focus on war-related legislation as arguments over ultra-Orthodox military service and postwar order in Gaza threaten future of Netanyahu’s government

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) attend a vote in the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant attend a vote on the reasonableness bill in the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following a controversial six-week wartime recess, lawmakers are set to reconvene in the Knesset on Monday for the start of the spring legislative session under the shadow of growing tensions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and an increasingly vocal opposition.

The opposition Labor party will mark the Knesset’s first plenum session in over a month by submitting a vote of no-confidence against the government, which it said had “failed miserably” in providing security, bringing back the hostages and returning the displaced to their homes.

That vote, which is almost certain to fail, is scheduled to take place only days after minister Benny Gantz, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, also expressed grave concerns about the government’s management of the war.

In a televised statement on Saturday, Gantz, whose National Unity party joined the government in the wake of October 7, issued an ultimatum to Netanyahu, threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless the premier commits to an agreed-upon vision for the Gaza conflict by June 8.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Sunday, National Unity faction chair MK Pnina Tamano-Shata said that she and her colleagues “don’t want to leave the government, but if [Netanyahu] pushes us to that we will leave.

“We can’t sit in a government where the prime minister brings political considerations” into the decision-making process, she said.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan, May 18, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Gantz’s exit from the coalition, like that of his erstwhile ally Gideon Sa’ar, would not topple the government, which would still have a slim majority of 64 seats out of 120 in the Knesset without him.

Though Netanyahu can ostensibly ignore Gantz’s threat and move on, another challenge from within his own Likud party may prove more serious.

Internal discord

Last Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the third member of the three-member war cabinet, went on television to directly challenge Netanyahu’s handling of the ongoing conflict in Gaza — sparking a very public spat with the prime minister and triggering the biggest threat to the stability of the government since the start of the war.

Calling on Netanyahu to make “tough decisions” to advance non-Hamas governance of Gaza, Gallant stated that he would not consent to Israeli civil or military rule in the territorial enclave and hinted that he would not back the prime minister’s efforts to pass a proposed ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill.

Responding to Gallant’s comments, several of Netanyahu’s far-right allies called for his ouster, as did several Likud figures — including party comptroller Shai Galili, who wrote to Director-General Zuri Siso to demand that he take steps to expel Gallant from the party, Maariv reported.

But Gallant’s rebellion will only pose a threat to Netanyahu if his opposition spreads among other Likud MKs, and the defense minister has “almost no support” within the party, a Likud source told the Times of Israel.

Gallant’s decision to challenge Netanyahu in public without first taking his case before his fellow lawmakers at a faction meeting has generated discontent, the source explained.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant delivers a statement to the press at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, May 15, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“If he would have had tried the first way, failed, and then gone out and made public statements, that would have been one thing, but that’s not what happened,” the source said.

Another source, who asked to be identified only as a senior coalition member, said he did not believe efforts to expel Gallant would go anywhere, and that Netanyahu was locked into his choice of defense minister because of the war.

Firing Gallant would spark large-scale demonstrations, similar to those seen after Netanyahu previously attempted to dismiss him for speaking out against the government’s planned judicial overhaul last year, and “Netanyahu knows that he has no alternative for now.

“But probably in the future he will find the right time for payback,” the coalition member added, noting that while the government “won’t fall immediately,” voices of criticism like that of Gallant and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman MK Yuli Edelstein “show that there are fractures in the coalition.”

Ultra-Orthodox pressure

Edelstein, who has previously expressed interest in challenging Netanyahu for the party leadership, last week intimated that he would not allow an ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill important to Netanyahu to pass through his committee.

If anything could prove fatal to the coalition, the fight over ultra-Orthodox enlistment could be it, the Likud source said. “I don’t think it will, but it definitely is a danger. It’s the only danger that I foresee in the near future.”

The High Court of Justice ruled in March that the state must cease subsidizing Haredi yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft, since the legal framework for doing so has expired, placing Netanyahu under considerable pressure to find a legislative solution which would satisfy his ultra-Orthodox partners in Shas and United Torah Judaism while overcoming intense opposition from coalition members who support universal enlistment.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Last week, after failing to come to an agreement with his Haredi coalition partners, Netanyahu announced that he would revive a 2022 bill to lower yeshiva students’ age of exemption from military service — setting up an intense political battle over enlistment in the coming legislative session as he seeks to overcome objections from Gallant, Gantz and Edelstein.

Failure to find a solution acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox could threaten Netanyahu’s longtime alliance with the Haredi parties, jeopardizing his coalition and his political future.

Hostage crisis

Also looming large is the issue of the hostages, whose families have roamed the halls of the Knesset in recent months, lobbying for measures to ensure the safe return of their loved ones.

Relatives of the hostages appeared at the beginning of many committee meetings and engaged in high-profile protests and arguments with lawmakers during the last Knesset session, culminating in the smearing of yellow paint in the plenum during its final session on April 3.

Protesters smear yellow paint on the windows of the Knesset plenum visitors gallery, April 3, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz, Office of the Knesset Spokesperson)

“Yes, we will be seeing the families of the hostages going to the Knesset at least once a week and appearing in the committees to make sure that nothing is being done and no topic is being dealt with before speaking about the hostages, which is still the most important topic on the Israeli agenda,” Udi Goren, the cousin of hostage Tal Haimi, told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“Going into the new legislative session, first and foremost we want to make sure that our voices are heard loud and clear in the Israeli parliament. At the end of the day the Knesset is the house of the people, it does not belong to the legislators, and this is why we must be there, we must be present and we have to make sure that the legislators have us in mind all the time.”

Goren noted that the families were also advocating for specific legislative initiatives to help the hostages. One such bill, which was brought up for discussion in the Labor and Welfare Committee over the recess, aims to increase the stipend paid to returned hostages and to automatically recognize them as suffering from PTSD.

A reduction in scope

According to a new study by doctoral student Tal Elovitch (Hebrew), in the months following October 7, some committees reduced their activity by up to 50 percent, with the only committee to hold a similar number of meetings as in previous sessions being the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

And while the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers met significantly more than usual due to the wartime labor shortage, the frequency of meetings of the Economy Committee fell by 56% — despite the significant economic damage wrought by the conflict.

During one incident in March, only one lawmaker showed up to a meeting on the impact of cross-border fighting with Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, leaving attendees fuming.

But remarkably, there was no reduction in the scope of legislation passed following October 7, “when most of the legislation was related to the war,” Elovitch said.

Members of the Knesset House Committee vote to approve the legislature’s 2024 spring recess, March, 26, 2024. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset)

According to Likud and National Unity’s coalition agreement, no legislation in the Knesset or government resolutions will be advanced during the war that is unrelated to managing the war, unless by mutual agreement. This means that the scope of the Knesset’s activities is likely to remain restricted for however long Gantz remains in the coalition.

While there does not appear to have been significant public anger over the reduction in legislative oversight following October 7, the decision to go on recess between April 7 and May 19 engendered outraged pushback.

Labor, Yesh Atid and National Unity all joined a Yisrael Beytenu-led initiative to cancel the recess, arguing that it was wrong to halt legislative activities during wartime.

During the recess, Knesset committees were allowed to meet four times while the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee had no limitations placed on its activities — and attendance during the break became a political weapon for legislators eager to paint their opponents in a bad light.

Now, with the Knesset back in session, parliament’s activities will once again be restricted to war-related issues, but this is unlikely to curb the intensity of upcoming political battles over the “day after” the war in Gaza and the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox, which are shaking the foundations of Netanyahu’s power.

Tal Schneider contributed to this report.

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