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Analysis

In bid to topple government, Netanyahu seeks a dysfunctional Knesset

The new coalition has proven surprisingly resilient, but a state budget law must pass by November if it is to survive. Likud is hard at work, once again, making sure it doesn’t

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Bennett-Lapid government sworn in on June 13 is now a month old. It’s an unprecedented coalition: more ideologically varied than ever before, containing no fewer than eight factions and holding only the slimmest parliamentary majority at the best of times.

And it’s not always the best of times. Even the smallest faction, as Ra’am showed this week, can hold the coalition hostage. Any controversial subject, from citizenship rules for Palestinian family unification to cuts to child subsidies for Haredi families, can lose the coalition its majority or cause angry dustups among member factions.

And yet, a month into the new term, the new coalition has proven sturdier than some expected. It weathered the many crises that have crossed its path. There have been airstrikes in Gaza, fights over controversial laws, and countless attempts by the opposition to propose legislation meant to drive wedges between the coalition’s left and right flanks. Yet the government has held firm throughout.

Perhaps the most powerful glue holding the coalition together is opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. As long as he’s sitting in the wings preparing his return to power, parties like New Hope, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu and Labor have a potent incentive to stick together. There’s another glue, too: Each of the new coalition’s parties is desperate to show meaningful dividends for their voters before facing them again at the ballot box. That means having a say in the drafting of the state budget law due to pass by November – which means holding the coalition together until that budget law passes.

The surprising resilience of the new government has led the opposition, under Netanyahu’s leadership, to pursue a different strategy for bringing it down. The idea is simple, and over the past few days it has crystallized into a straightforward plan of action: Disrupt everything, at every turn.

The past month has seen a grueling war of procedural attrition in the Knesset whose purpose was not to topple the government directly – the opposition lacks the votes to actually replace the coalition – but to make it literally unable to govern the country. The disruption strategy has been markedly successful. The government has managed to clear the hurdles of major political crises, but it has struggled and stumbled when it comes to day-to-day governing and legislation.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 11, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The opposition has tried to hold things up at every turn and using every procedural trick in the book. Netanyahu himself was seen in recent days walking the Knesset halls with a copy of the parliament’s bylaws in his hands.

Opposition parties led by Likud have refused to negotiate on forming the Knesset’s committees, refused to debate the budget law, refused to pass even bills they supported, as with Likud’s voting down of the government’s family reunification law on the grounds that granting the government any success at all amounted to a de facto “vote of confidence.”

“You’re not just bitter,” a frustrated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett railed at the opposition in remarks in the Knesset plenum on Monday, “you’re anarchists, who want to burn the whole country down just to hurt the coalition.”

Resistance

On Monday, after a month of delays and foot-dragging by the opposition, the Knesset Arrangements Committee finally managed to call a vote establishing the Knesset’s vital standing committees, especially the economy, health, welfare and education committees.

Illustrative: MKs in the Knesset Arrangements Committee vote against advancing the controversial family reunification bill to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, July 5, 2021 (Screen grab/Knesset channel)

The vote mattered. COVID’s Delta variant has brought the pandemic back to Israel’s shores, but no Knesset Health Committee was there to oversee or challenge the government’s response. Special unemployment benefits instituted last year are petering out in the coming weeks, but no Welfare Committee has sat to consider whether the government’s decision to end the benefits is appropriate while unemployment remains far above pre-pandemic levels.

Dozens of major reforms, most of them widely supported across the political spectrum, have been delayed for nearly three years because of the political deadlock of the past four elections. Without functioning committees, they cannot advance. A reform to streamline Israel’s byzantine import rules, which are a major cause for the country’s high cost of living, can’t move forward without the Economy Committee. Neither can a bid by lawmakers to reconsider the terms of the natural gas deals with energy companies, nor public transportation reforms, including a rush-hour tax for entering the Tel Aviv metropolitan core.

The new education minister, Yifat Shasha-Biton, who holds a PhD in education, has plans for dramatic changes to the education system, including fewer but longer school days each week, shorter school vacations (the age-old bane of working parents), and devolving more control over the curriculum from ministry headquarters in Jerusalem to school principals. But no Education Committee existed before Monday to debate the wisdom of these reforms or advance legislation needed to implement them.

The squabbling that has all but frozen the daily work of Israel’s parliament over the past month has left the people’s business unattended. And the opposition is eager for that situation to continue.

Monday’s vote finally forming those committees went 17-13, entirely along party lines. A later plenum vote approving committee assignments passed 60 to nothing on Monday evening; the entire opposition was absent in protest.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Likud and its opposition allies have good reason to be upset about the new committees. Breaking with parliamentary tradition, the coalition gave itself comfortable majorities in all the key committees, far beyond the coalition’s relative strength in the Knesset.

But as sources in the coalition pointed out on Monday, it was the opposition that refused to negotiate for the past month on how seats would be distributed — in a transparent bid to delay the forming of any committees at all.

On Monday, the opposition doubled down on its foot-dragging. The heads of the opposition parties announced they would not assign members to the new committees and would even boycott plenum sessions with foreign leaders. The plan is simple: refuse to conduct ordinary parliamentary business until the coalition falls.

“There’s no dialogue with the opposition,” one coalition lawmaker told the Maariv news outlet on Monday. “It seems they want to fight and aren’t interested in any agreements with us.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the Meretz party, was quick to lash the opposition’s behavior: “We spent many years in the opposition and never called the government illegitimate or disrupted the forming of the committees. The Knesset must get to work.”

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu at a plenum session in the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Even in the opposition, the new policy made some queasy. “This is our stage for the media,” complained one opposition MK of the decision not to staff the committees, “and it’s where most of the work gets done.”

Time is short

It’s no accident that the opposition’s focus is now on delaying legislative work. If the government can’t be felled by its internal ideological divides, then perhaps failing to pass the budget will do the trick.

With the committees now formed, the Knesset’s first and most important duty is to successfully pass a state budget for the first time since March 2018. And with a month already lost to the opposition’s disruptions, that won’t be easy.

Just over three weeks remain until the Knesset goes out to its summer recess on August 6, returning for its winter session in early October. Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy has given the okay for committees to meet during the recess, but the month of September coincides with the intensive Jewish High Holidays schedule, rendering most of the month unavailable for parliamentary work. There will be scarcely half a dozen plenum working days between the end of August and the beginning of October.

A plenum session in the Knesset, on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new budget will likely reach the cabinet table at the beginning of August. If approved, it must then pass a first vote in the plenum a few days later, sending its various parts to the relevant committees for debate and revision. The Knesset will then go to recess. When the Knesset returns, its committees will have scarcely eight weeks to debate and finish drafting the vast budget bill, including its accompanying arrangements bills containing the budget’s many institutional and policy reforms, and then return the enormous legislative package to the plenum for the requisite second and third votes that pass it into law by the November 4 deadline.

The coalition is on schedule for the moment. But it’s a desperately tight timetable for such complex legislation, which will include reforms held up by nearly three years of deadlock and fiscal adjustments from two years of stopgap spending bills.

The government may have proven itself resistant to the usual run of political crises, but it will fall if it doesn’t pass that budget, which under Israel’s Basic Laws would automatically trigger a snap election. The opposition’s delaying tactics have already cost the coalition a precious month’s work. If the coalition doesn’t improve its parliamentary ground game, it will lose the larger war for its survival through sheer procedural attrition.

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