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Row after Likud said to refuse to offset vote of bereaved MK

In coalition boost, Knesset okays budget extension, law easing Likud defections

MKs pass three key laws aimed at shoring up the position of the paper-thin majority; coalition forced to pull one bill from agenda for fear it wouldn’t pass

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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

In a busy overnight Knesset session Tuesday-Wednesday, lawmakers approved a series of measures aimed at shoring up the new coalition, including a quasi-constitutional amendment extending the deadline for the government to pass a budget.

A night after the coalition was dealt a major blow by the Knesset failing to approve an extension of the contentious Palestinian family reunification law, it succeeded in passing three key laws that could facilitate the work of its 61 MKs officially in the coalition, even as it was forced to pull one bill from the agenda for fear it wouldn’t gain the necessary majority.

In the most significant triumph of the night, Knesset members voted to extend the deadline for the government to pass a budget, giving it three months from the beginning of the budget year or 145 days from the date of the formation of the government, whichever is later.

This means that under normal circumstances, instead of the Knesset being dissolved if the budget does not pass by January 1, lawmakers will be able to pass the budget by June 31 of each year. In the case of the new coalition, which was sworn in on June 13, it will now have until November 4 to pass the 2021 budget.

Israel last approved a state budget for 2019, before it became embroiled in a two-year political gridlock. In the previous government, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to pass a budget — which allowed him to call elections without coalition partner Defense Minister Benny Gantz immediately becoming transitional prime minister under the terms of their rotation deal.

Also overnight, MKs approved expanding the controversial so-called “Norwegian Law” which allows ministers and deputy ministers to resign their Knesset seats and be replaced by the next candidate on their party’s electoral slate. According to the new amendment, up to 26 MKs from the coalition can now utilize the measure, with a faction numbering six MKs being allowed three resignations, a faction with seven to nine MKs allowed four, and a faction with 10 or more MKs allowed five resignations.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) and ministers during a Knesset discussion on the Palestinian family reunification law in Jerusalem, July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The proposals, which came as part of amendments to the Basic Law: The Knesset, were passed 60-57.

Additionally, MKs passed by 60-54 a separate amendment making it easier for lawmakers to split from their party. The previous law had imposed penalties if a breakaway group did not comprise at least a third of its Knesset faction’s membership.

Likud has 30 lawmakers in the current Knesset, meaning 11 MKs would have previously needed to break ranks together to avoid sanction including the loss of future campaign financing. The new amendment allows a group as small as four MKs to quit a faction without facing punishment.

While the coalition was successful in passing these three measures, it was forced to withdraw a legislative proposal put forward by the Defense Ministry to extend temporary provisions regarding the IDF Exemption Committee for Religious Women, after failing to muster enough votes.

The Likud party celebrated that proposal being pulled from the agenda, saying: “We will continue to act resolutely to overthrow this evil government.”

Gantz wrote on Twitter in response that he was “very sorry that the Likud party and other Zionist parties are harming security.”

Head of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting in the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

The tension between the coalition and opposition was on display late Tuesday when the Likud party was said to have refused a vote-offsetting agreement to allow New Hope’s MK Meir Yitzhak Halevi to attend the funeral of his sister.

Meir Yitzhak Halevi (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

According to such agreements, which have been commonplace throughout the Knesset’s history, members of the coalition and opposition agree to be absent from a vote at the same time in order to offset each other.

The coalition said that Likud had placed a blanket ban on offsetting Halevi, even for a few hours, forcing him to ask his second cousin, MK Yoav Ben Tzur of the opposition party Shas, to offset his absence by skipping the vote on the Basic Law amendments.

After Halevi turned up at the Knesset to vote following the funeral, however, Likud MK Yariv Levin issued a statement attacking the coalition’s conduct, claiming that it was “cynically using a person’s mourning period to try and steal a vote.” It was unclear why Halevi came to the Knesset when he had apparently made the agreement with Ben Tzur.

New Hope said in response that Ben Tzur was present in the plenary too, meaning that there was no longer an offset arrangement, adding that it was Likud that was “using the situation to play games.”

Discord between right-wing politicians in both the coalition and opposition snowballed Tuesday over the government’s failure to pass the Knesset motion renewing a law that bars Palestinians from obtaining Israeli citizenship through marriage, with lawmakers from both sides accusing each other of endangering Israeli security.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A pre-dawn vote Tuesday on an annual extension to the contentious measure was torpedoed by Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, who voted against the measure, drawing calls for his removal from the faction. With two members of the Islamist Ra’am coalition party abstaining, the 59-59 vote was not enough to pass the bill. The law expired at midnight Tuesday.

The law has historically been supported by right-wing parties as a necessary measure for Israeli security and to ensure the country maintains a Jewish majority. However, several opposition parties from the right, including Likud and Religious Zionism, voted against the law’s extension as a means of embarrassing and weakening the coalition, which includes a wide array of parties from across the political spectrum.

Writing on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu said his decision to vote against the law “halted [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett and [Interior Minister Ayelet] Shaked’s attempt to sell the country to [Ra’aam chair] Mansour Abbas and grant citizenship to thousands of Palestinians.”

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