Knesset reconvenes with an ambitious and controversial agenda

Packed coalition plan for winter session includes right-wing hopes to sidestep top courts, advance ‘Jewish state law’ and rewrite law on ultra-Orthodox draft

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with then-coalition chairman David Bitan in the Knesset plenum, with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin sitting on the left, April 05, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with then-coalition chairman David Bitan in the Knesset plenum, with then-tourism minister Yariv Levin sitting on the left, April 05, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday opened its winter session with an ambitious and often controversial agenda, ranging from a bid to clip the High Court of Justice’s wings to anchoring the state’s Jewish character in the country’s constitutional Basic Laws.

The packed legislative line-up set out by ministers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the parliament’s three-month break also included support for expanding Jerusalem’s municipal borders to absorb surrounding settlements; rewriting laws on ultra-Orthodox conscription and illegal migration to bypass judgments by the twin High Court and Supreme Courts; and passing the 2019 budget, to boot.

In the shadow of the corruption probes into Netanyahu, and with his wife Sara expected to be indicted any day for allegedly misusing public funds, Likud lawmakers were closing ranks around Netanyahu, with little public criticism of the premier and even a proposal (currently facing objections by the coalition Kulanu party) seeking to offer incumbent premiers immunity from prosecution.

But elsewhere, election fever was in full swing as the Knesset resumed, with the center-left Labor party’s new chairman Avi Gabbay in the process of rebranding the party and driving it rightward, and the first glimmers of a looming political showdown between Gabbay and the centrist Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

Raging at the High Court

Coalition lawmakers and ministers were returning to the halls of power with individual grievances against Israel’s top court, which shot down their flagship legislation over the summer in a series of rulings.

For the ultra-Orthodox parties, those frustrations were aimed at the court’s ruling knocking down a Knesset law that delayed the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men. The court gave the government a year to pass new legislation on the hot-button issue for Haredim, calling the existing law untenable in its failure to achieve its own stated goals of the legislation (namely, to draft the ultra-Orthodox) and for failing to articulate what happens to the enlistment quotas after 2020.

Police officers arrests an ultra-Orthodox Jew during a demonstration in Jerusalem against the conscription of members of the ultra-Orthodox community to the IDF on October 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

For the center-right Kulanu party and its leader, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the frustration was focused on the court decision to disqualify his pet reform on third-apartment taxation and send it back to the Knesset’s Finance Committee. In a blow to both Kahlon and Netanyahu, the court also ruled against the government’s 2017-2018 budget, keeping it intact but opposing any future two-year budgets from being advanced unless the Knesset overhauls its Basic Law on the state economy.

For the right-wing Jewish Home and Likud parties,  the rage at the High Court centered on its August decision regarding illegal migrants. The court placed a cap on imprisoning migrants at 60 days, while allowing for the government’s practice of deporting migrants to third-party countries with their consent. Following the decision, both Netanyahu and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked vowed to pass a new law to deport the migrants, largely from Sudan and Eritrea, to these other countries, even without their consent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with residents of South Tel Aviv, during a tour in the neighborhood on August 31, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The court had also frozen, pending the state’s response, the so-called Regulation Law that authorize West Bank illegal building on private Palestinian land, advanced by the Jewish Home and Likud last winter.

Having long accused the Supreme Court of an interventionist, leftist and activist creed, in September Shaked, the justice minister, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett proposed advancing a constitutional law that would allow the government to relegislate bills rejected by the court, stymieing judicial oversight. Kahlon, whose party support would be essential for the measure to pass, has vowed to block any attempts to rein in the judiciary’s power.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (R) with Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum on November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the finance minister will also face significant pressure to drum up support for the 2019 budget, which he has signaled he is eager to advance in the winter session, and which could result in political concessions on matters related to the Supreme Court.

With Netanyahu’s blessing: Jerusalem expansion, Jewish state bill

In the sky-high pile of high-profile legislation that coalition lawmakers have promised to speedily advance were three fledgling proposals that have earned the explicit backing of Israel’s prime minister.

The first, the so-called Jewish state bill, was being revised in a special committee ahead of its first reading in the plenum. Over the last Knesset session, Netanyahu made it emphatically clear that he was eager to see the law — which would for the first time enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in its constitutional Basic Laws — advanced as quickly as possible.

Head of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Avi Dichter leads a meeting at the Knesset, July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s national identity is mentioned in a number of the country’s laws, but the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions and the state’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the bill effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arab and other minority communities.

Meanwhile, the prime minister also recently threw his support behind an initiative to absorb the settlements around Jerusalem into the capital’s municipality. Internationally, the bill was perceived by some as de facto annexation, a characterization rejected by the “Greater Jerusalem” bill’s Israeli sponsors.

In this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Schooner)

According to the proposal initiated by Likud MK Yoav Kisch and backed by Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, residents of Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Illit and Efrat, along with the Etzion Bloc, would be able to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, but the settlements would not be under full Israeli sovereignty.

The move would make Jerusalem’s official demographic balance significantly more Jewish and would “bring back Jerusalem’s status as a symbol,” according to the proposal’s preamble. In total, the settlements in question are currently home to some 130,000 Israelis. Under the same proposal, around 100,000 people living in Palestinian neighborhoods outside the security barrier surrounding the city would be removed from the city’s census, with a new municipality built for them.

Jewish Home MKs were also pushing for a bill to repeal the 2005 pullout from four Israeli settlements in the West Bank, though it remained unclear whether Netanyahu would allow the proposal to advance.

Likud and Jewish Home lawmakers at a ceremony at the evacuated Sa-nur settlement in the northern West Bank. (Jacob Magid/The Times of Israel)

A third initiative backed by Netanyahu would ratchet up pressure on left-wing NGOs and human rights groups. Recent reports have indicated the tougher NGO bill would allow the government to shutter left-wing NGOs critical of the Israel Defense Forces. Netanyahu in June said the government would formulate a new bill restricting foreign government funding to Israeli organizations and tasked Tourism Minister Yariv Levin with writing the legislation. The proposal, at this stage, does not appear to have been fully drafted.

But the prime minister also faced a setback in this area earlier this month, when a cabinet attempt to set up a parliamentary probe into the affairs of these organizations was shut down by the Knesset’s legal adviser.

A centrist battle brewing?

In the opposition, Labor’s new leader — a former Kulanu minister — appeared to be nudging the party the right, telling a TV station last week settlements need not be removed in a future peace deal and days later again praising the settlements. In an apparent rebranding effort, Gabbay was also said to be planning to change the party’s name to disassociate from the political left.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

The weeks leading up to the Knesset winter session have also seen two Labor MKs quit, as the long troubled party seemed on the brink of some alterations.

The rumblings of a rivalry were also evident between Gabbay and Lapid, who would be gunning for many of the same voters in the next election. While elections are currently set for November 2019, the corruption probes into Netanyahu and the proven tendency for governments to fall before completing the four-year terms have left both openly electioneering.

While both politicians have vowed to campaign positively and avoid attacking their opponents, Lapid — who has championed the tougher 2014 ultra-Orthodox enlistment law — has started to openly attack Gabbay for opposing mandatory conscription.

In a series of interviews with the Haredi press, Gabbay has opposed a forcible draft of the ultra-Orthodox, instead proposing paying IDF soldiers minimum wage, while offering exemptions to Israelis who want to pursue their education.

“I think that whoever wants to learn and is already learning should be able to continue to do that,” he said. “The rest must serve in the IDF or in national service. Moreover, anyone who is learning and wants to go out to work will need national service.”

Those remarks were backed by Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson who noted this month in an interview with Walla news that IDF service for all was “not a value in of itself,” but rather “growth of the Israeli economy is a worthy value that must be strengthened.”

“Following Avi Gabbay, now his new faction leader announced today that IDF service is not a value,” Lapid responded on Twitter. “No problem, just get rid of the word ‘Zionist’ from your party name.”

That friction was likely to be highlighted further as the government advances fresh legislation on the Haredi draft — in what will likely be a centerpiece of the Knesset’s 2017-2018 eventful winter legislation.

Unless, that is, the police investigations into the prime minister unravel it all.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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