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Gantz-backed equality bill clears first Knesset hurdle, to Likud’s dismay

Netanyahu’s party, ultra-Orthodox fume at Blue and White for advancing proposal that would explicitly bar discrimination, amid jockeying ahead of Knesset’s possible dissolution

Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

A bill backed by the Blue and White party aimed at outlawing discrimination cleared a preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, over the objections of its right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The bill is one of several proposals Blue and White is advancing despite opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, as the unity government they formed earlier this year appears poised to collapse.

The proposal, which passed 56-54 in its initial reading, must clear three more Knesset votes before becoming law.

“A country like ours, which is composed of different communities, backgrounds and cultures, cannot but anchor and declare at every forum that equality is a leading value and right,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who heads Blue and White, tweeted after the vote.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Miri Regev in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

The bill, named “The Basic Law: Equality” is “aimed to enshrine the right to equality and the prohibition of discrimination,” according to Blue and White.

The principle of equality is not explicitly stated in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, but judges have interpreted “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” to include it.

Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin lashed out at Blue and White over the bill.

“The meaning of the laws you formulated is a complete negation of all the Jewish symbols of the State of Israel,” Elkin claimed during the plenum session.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White fired back by asserting Likud opposed equality.

“Whoever voted against [the bill], voted against equality and in favor of racism,” Nissenkorn said.

Likud later issued a statement claiming the bill would lead to the cancellation of the Law of Return, which exclusively grants Jews the right to immigrate to Israel, thus “flooding Israel with non-Jewish refugees, who will ultimately turn the Jews into a minority in its country.”

MK Gideon Sa’ar in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

It also hit out at MK Gideon Sa’ar for not taking part in the vote, a day after the lawmaker announced he was leaving Likud to form his own party with the aim of replacing Netanyahu.

“Just yesterday, Sa’ar abandoned Likud and today he’s a full-fledged partner of the left,” Likud said.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party also fumed at Sa’ar and Likud MK Michal Shir for not voting, as well as at Blue and White for backing the measure.

“[Blue and White’s] support for the Equality Law, contrary to the position they are allegedly participants in, is an example of the populism that is charting their path,” Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni were quoted saying in a statement.

Along with the Equality Law, Blue and White party is pushing two other bills as part of the same effort, including one that would expand surrogacy rights for would-be parents. Currently, only heterosexual couples are entitled to surrogacy rights inside the country, forcing many LGBT families to have children abroad.

A third bill, “The Basic Law: The Declaration of Independence,” would require judges to “interpret all Israeli legislation, including other Basic Laws, in light of the Declaration of Independence as a constitutional document.”

Bringing the proposals to the Knesset without specific agreement from Likud violates a clause in the coalition agreement between the parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both wearing protective masks due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

Earlier Wednesday, a Blue and White-controlled committee approved March 16 as the potential date for Israelis to go to the polls, advancing legislation to dissolve the Knesset as Israel continued to advance toward its fourth elections in two years.

Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg, the head of the Knesset House Committee, said on Tuesday that even though the snap election has not yet been approved, officials should begin planning as if it had been.

The proposal to dissolve the Knesset passed in an initial plenum vote last week, heralding the end of the short-lived power-sharing coalition between Netanyahu and his alternate premier, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

However, even without the bill, the Knesset was already on track to dissolve later this month due to an impasse over the state budget which has long been held up by Likud. Netanyahu is widely believed to be planning to dissolve the government anyway before the 2021 budget must be passed in March, in order to prevent a scenario where, as stipulated by their power-sharing agreement, Gantz will succeed him as prime minister.

Blue and White has been demanding that a state budget be passed for 2020 and 2021 together — also as the coalition deal stipulates — in a bid to force Netanyahu to honor the premiership rotation clause. If Likud continues to resist those demands, elections will be triggered on December 23 at the latest and held three months later.

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