Knesset schedules marathon votes next week on key bills

In just four days, lawmakers to debate and cast final votes on Haredi draft, electoral threshold, peace referendum

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

Illustrative photo of the Knesset plenum in session, July 29, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of the Knesset plenum in session, July 29, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Knesset is preparing for a three-day marathon of debates and votes on a series of critical — and controversial — bills that would draft Haredim, increase the electoral threshold for political parties to enter the Knesset, and establish a semi-constitutional Basic Law requiring a referendum for any land exchange in a future peace deal.

Debate on the government-backed Governance Bill, which includes the increase in the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.5%, will start Monday morning, with debate and votes through the night and a final vote on the bill slated for Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. The Knesset will then take up the Equal Service Bill, which calls for a sharp increase in the drafting of Haredi men over the next three years. Debate will last until the final vote slated for Wednesday at 10 a.m. The marathon session will then take up the referendum Basic Law, which faces a final vote on Thursday morning.

The tight schedule faced criticism this week from the bills’ opponents.

“What’s so urgent?” MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) demanded in the Knesset House Committee this week, referring to the Equal Service Bill. “Even in three years, there won’t be one single additional yeshiva student drafted [because of the bill],” he vowed.

The government’s push for fast passage of the bills, intended to prevent a delay of the votes until after the summer recess, which begins later this month, is “unprecedented,” charged MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), who has fought for months against the passage of the Governance Bill.

“There is no precedent in history when changes in the structure of government were debated so quickly,” Khenin, a political science professor, said earlier this week.

Each of the bills faces resistance from different quarters, and also support from coalition parties who see their passage as key to retaining the support of their voters.

Coalition Chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who is set to leave the senior parliamentary role by the end of the month, promised there would be meaningful discussion on the measures, which have been debated in committees for months.

“There will be a full, comprehensive, serious discussion [in the Knesset plenum], and at its end, a vote,” he said. “We are on the eve of a recess. Our duty is to hold an appropriate process, and then to allow [the Knesset] to make decisions and hold votes.”

The Governance Bill, initiated by Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, has gone through a series of revisions and debates in the Knesset over the past few months. The raising of the electoral threshold is seen by its supporters as critical for increasing the stability of Israel’s fractious parliamentary politics, which has seen 33 governments in 65 years of Israeli independence.

But critics note that raising the electoral threshold might push all three Arab-majority parties — Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad — out of the Knesset. Under the stipulations of the new bill, the three party lists could unite in a larger joint list for the elections (Meretz and Likud-Beytenu are just such joint lists composed of disparate parties) and then separate into separate Knesset factions once elected. But many Arab MKs have resisted the idea of running together, noting that the ideological and social gaps between the Arab parties are as great as those that separate Jewish parties.

The Basic Law, requiring a national referendum for land exchanges in the framework of any peace deal, would not change existing rules, as a 2010 law already requires a national referendum before a government may surrender territory that Israeli law defines as sovereign Israeli land — a category that includes all territory on the Israeli side of the Green Line, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but excludes the rest of the West Bank.

The new Basic Law is meant to head off High Court challenges to the 2010 law by anchoring it in a constitutional law.

Meanwhile, the Equal Service Bill, also called the Haredi Draft Bill, has faced bitter opposition from Haredi leaders, who fear military service is incompatible with their followers’ religious obligations.

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