Controversial law to shutter minimarkets on Shabbat squeaks through Knesset
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Tel Aviv is exempt; Eilat isn't

Controversial law to shutter minimarkets on Shabbat squeaks through Knesset

Legislation pushed by Shas leader giving him control over what stores remain open on Jewish day of rest approved after opposition filibuster

Israeli lawmakers in the Knesset on January 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli lawmakers in the Knesset on January 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A controversial law granting the interior minister the power to shutter stores on Shabbat passed in the Knesset by a razor-thin majority early Tuesday morning, after the ruling coalition overcame internal divisions to muster the needed votes.

The legislation, championed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, passed by 58 to 57 votes in its second and third readings, with Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers and a few other coalition MKs sitting out the vote or joining the opposition.

The vote came after a 15-hour filibuster by the opposition.

The law grants the interior minister, currently Shas head Aryeh Deri, the power to oversee and reject local ordinances relating to whether businesses may remain open on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that runs from Friday evening until Saturday night.

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 had since languished on the coalition whip’s desk as Deri sought to secure the majority needed to pass it.

In the final vote, four of Yisrael Beytenu’s five MKs voted against the measure, with Immigration Minister Sofa Landver, not wishing to risk losing her ministerial post by voting against the government, sitting out of the ballot. Likud MK Sharren Haskel and Kulanu’s Tali Ploskov also skipped the vote, having expressed misgivings about the move, while independent lawmaker Orly Levy-Abekasis joined the opposition with a no vote.

Both coalition MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) and opposition MK Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union) were absent from the vote following the recent deaths of close relatives.

In a last-ditch attempt to secure a majority, coalition leaders reached an agreement Sunday to soften the bill, agreeing to exempt convenience stores attached to gas stations from the legislation but rejecting a proposed amendment that would have exempted entirely the tourist city of Eilat. The exemption was included in the final law after MKs voted to accept the amendment before the final passage of the bill.

The law will not affect the secular bastion of Tel Aviv, which Israel’s High Court recently ruled could pass its own bylaws to govern what stores may remain open on Shabbat. Some coalition lawmakers had hoped to also include the exemption for Eilat, but the proposal was rejected by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attends a Knesset vote on the so-called mini-markets bill, January 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The hours-long voting process was punctured by several twists and turns throughout the night.

The opposition, which had prevented the coalition from imposing time limits on the debate, presented hundreds of amendments, some satirical, to the bill, forcing lawmakers to vote on them one by one. In what appeared to be a mistake, one such amendment — a derisive revision proposed by Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli to exempt shops that also sell kitchenware — was approved by the plenary when two coalition members forgot to vote against it. Learning of the misstep, coalition whip David Amsalem immediately called a meeting of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee to remove the amendment from the final text of the bill.

In a separate minor hitch that confused lawmakers and observers throughout the night, the electronic screen of United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler failed to register his vote, meaning that the result of every vote on each amendment initially appeared to be a 57-57 draw.

At around 1 a.m., opposition lawmakers attempted to catch the coalition off-guard, temporarily pulling the amendments from the agenda to force an immediate vote on the final version of the bill when they realized that they had a majority in the plenary. Preventing a shock loss, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked took to the podium for some 40 minutes, reading long sections of the Declaration of Independence, until the coalition restored its majority in the hall, promoting the opposition to return the amendments to the agenda.

Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned members of his Likud party to toe the party line or risk felling his government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset vote on the so-called mini-markets bill, January 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Whoever votes against the mini-markets bill is in favor of toppling the government,” Netanyahu told MKs during a closed-door Likud faction meeting on Monday, according to leaks to Hebrew media.

The comments came hours before a Likud court rejected Amsalem’s bid to oust Haskel from the party over her opposition to the bill.

Critics of the law see it as an attempt to force religious observance on the public. The coalition agreed to back the proposal as part of an effort to shore up ultra-Orthodox support in the wake of a dispute over train maintenance on Shabbat that saw MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) resign as health minister in protest late last year.

In a separate vote immediately after the approval of the minimarkets bill, lawmakers passed a measure allowing Litzman to retain control of the Health Ministry while remaining a deputy minister.

The vote on the minimarkets bill was originally slated for last week, but was pushed off when the death of Likud MK Yehudah Glick’s wife left the coalition without a surefire majority.

Highlighting coalition efforts to get the bill passed, Deri unsuccessfully sought to bring Glick to the Knesset hours after the funeral of Glick’s wife. He also tried to have one of his own ministers resign from the Knesset — Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay was hospitalized for most of last week and therefore unable to vote — so that another Shas member could take his place.

Both Glick and Azoulay were present in the Knesset on Tuesday.

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