In another blow to coalition, Knesset advances opposition bills to hike minimum wage

Government’s Ra’am party breaks ranks to vote in favor of preliminary legislation from opposition’s Joint List, as imperiled coalition appears headed for a collapse

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a discussion and a vote on the minimum wage at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a discussion and a vote on the minimum wage at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In another failure for the faltering government, opposition bills to raise the minimum wage passed preliminary readings in the Knesset on Wednesday as some coalition lawmakers broke ranks to vote in favor.

Lawmakers voted to advance legislation raising the minimum wage to NIS 40 ($12) an hour from NIS 29.12 ($8.70) an hour — a move opposed by most coalition parties.

A lawmaker from the coalition’s Labor party sponsored one of the three linked bills that were up for a vote, while the other two were sponsored by opposition MKs. The coalition chose to oppose all three bills amid pushback from the Finance Ministry against raising the minimum wage.

There was tense infighting among coalition parties before the reading on how to handle the votes, with Ra’am defying coalition discipline and saying it would vote for the proposal from the opposition’s Arab-majority Joint List party.

The coalition’s Yesh Atid party refused to allow lawmakers to vote as they wanted and instead coalition MKs decided they would abstain from voting. However, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar vetoed that idea and insisted that the lawmakers vote against the bill in line with the government’s position, according to Hebrew media reports. In a last-minute compromise, coalition parties walked out of the vote, allowing all three bills to pass.

Bucking the coalition, Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and the Ra’am party backed the minimum wage bills. Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas did not attend the vote. It was the second time this week that Zoabi and Ra’am have gone against the coalition in votes.

The first bill up for a vote, sponsored by opposition MKs Ahmed Tibi and Osama Saadi of the Joint List, passed with a vote of 23-4. Another bill by Labor MK Naama Lazimi passed 19-3, and a third by MK Orly Levy-Abekasis of the opposition’s Likud passed 22-4.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was in the plenum and voted against the bills, along with coalition whip MK Boaz Toporovsky, MK Michal Shir of the New Hope party and Deputy Knesset Speaker Minister Eitan Ginzburg of Blue and White, who was chairing the session.

MKs Osama Saadi, left and Ahmad Tibi after a vote on their bill to raise the minimum wage, held at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor’s Lazimi, who has long championed raising the minimum wage, abstained from the legislation she had brought to the Knesset herself, tearfully telling the plenum, “It is killing me to leave when I want to vote for it.”

“We will walk out in order to maintain coalition discipline and also so that it passes,” she said. “This bill will pass because we are leaving the plenum.”

“What matters most, in the end, is that the law passes a preliminary reading today, despite the great pain I have in not voting for it, but I still know that with this act I am doing the right thing,” Lazimi said.

Her Labor party struck a more upbeat tone, saying in a statement, “We are happy that together with the coalition administration we reached an agreement to pass the bill on the one hand, and on the other maintain the unity and integrity of the coalition.”

Yamina’s Abir Kara argued that raising the minimum wage as laid out in the bills would hurt businesses and “will harm the weakest of Israeli society, fuel inflation and price hikes.”

“If people are forced out of the work market it will be because of this bill,” warned Kara, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

A discussion before a vote to raise the minimum wage, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The driving force behind all three bills was the organization Standing Together, a social justice activism group.

“The real heroes today are not the senior government figures who gave in to the public pressure, but all those people who pressured, acted, organized, took action, and who proved that where there is a campaign, there is also hope,” the group said in a statement after the Knesset session.

The coalition’s failure to block the legislation was the latest crisis for the imperiled government, which has struggled to stay on its feet since losing its parliamentary majority in early April, and appears to be inching toward a collapse.

On Monday, a critical piece of legislation to renew the application of Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israelis in the West Bank was defeated in the Knesset by the opposition with the assistance of two coalition MKs.

Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim and Meretz’s Zoabi both voted against that bill while other coalition lawmakers abstained. Their decision to break ranks sparked further coalition turmoil, with government leaders, including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, calling on the rebels to resign.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who oversaw the legislation, said before the vote that it was a crucial test of the coalition’s viability, but has said he will bring it up for another vote next week. Zoabi has reportedly told colleagues she will vote against it again.

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