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Legislators tiptoe into coalition minefield as Knesset returns from recess

Laws that limit Supreme Court, exempt ultra-Orthodox from enlistment, and enshrine Israel as ‘the national home of the Jewish people’ could all potentially topple the government

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

A general view of the plenum hall during a swearing in ceremony for the 20th Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A general view of the plenum hall during a swearing in ceremony for the 20th Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As Israeli lawmakers return to the Knesset on Monday after a two-month parliamentary recess, they face a minefield of thorny legislative issues with the potential for multiple coalition crises.

The Jewish Home party is pushing for a constitutional reform that would limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to overturn parliamentary legislation. The ultra-Orthodox parties want to finalize a move to exempt their community’s seminary students from the military draft. And Likud MKs are pressing ahead with a long-frozen bill that would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.”

Each of these controversial bills has threatened to topple the government in the past, and they each return to the legislative agenda this week with no clear compromise in sight.

In the final hours of the winter session, which ended in mid-March, coalition partners agreed to cooperate on the contentious issues in a bid to prevent the fall of the government and early elections.

“A stable government is a national necessity. All the party heads are obligated to work together so that the government can continue to function for an extended period of time,” read an agreement signed by coalition partners on the final day before the recess.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, April 29, 2018. (Amit Shabi/Flash90)

The agreement was supposed to prevent elections until the winter of 2019, but with lawmakers back in the parliament and the same issues remaining on the table, this summer session appears set to be a rehashing of the same old fights, with the same old threat of government instability looming above legislators.

Superseding the courts, and asylum seekers

The legislation pertaining to the High Court comes amid efforts by right-wing lawmakers to limit its power after judges have repeatedly stymied the government’s efforts to imprison and deport African asylum seekers from the country without examining their asylum requests or, the court said, sufficiently ascertaining the safety of the countries to which they were to be deported, as Israel is required to do under international treaties and Israeli law.

The clash led right-wing politicians to renew efforts to push legislation limiting the court’s ability to overturn Knesset legislation, and thus allow the coalition to pass a law that would legalize the deportations.

The so-called “supercession clause” bill, proposed by the Jewish Home, would allow the Knesset to re-vote on a law disqualified by the High Court, and thereby to pass the law despite the court’s ruling against its constitutionality.

During a Sunday meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Supreme Court President Ester Hayut warned against setting a bar for such a vote at a majority of parliament — 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset — a figure any ruling coalition in Israel’s parliamentary system is almost guaranteed to be able to muster.

Such a low bar was a “danger to democracy and to the court,” she is reported to have warned, according to Hebrew-language reports.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, at a faction meeting of their Jewish Home party in the Knesset, February 05, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The Jewish Home party has long campaigned for clipping the wings of what it regards as an overly liberal Supreme Court, and Shaked has succeeded in having several conservative candidates appointed to the top bench.

On Sunday, Jewish Home leaders, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, agreed to delay a vote on the bill in the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation in order to allow the Netanyahu-Hayut meeting to take place.

But in an agitated statement setting up the battle for the Knesset session, the party said, “We agreed last night to the prime minister’s request to delay the vote on the supercession clause by one week in order to allow for a deeper discussion and examination of the issue. But the Jewish Home faction is determined to pass the supercession clause, the most significant constitutional change in 25 years.”

If MKs pass significance reform of the Supreme Court, legislative efforts can be expected to increase against the African asylum seekers that the court ruled Israel cannot deport.

The coalition Kulanu party has objected to a sweeping High Court of Justice supercession law, but has said it will support a bill to override the court on the issue of migrants.

Israel considers most of about 35,000 African migrants to be job seekers and says it has no legal obligation to keep them, and officials commonly refer to them as “infiltrators.” The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return.

The Africans started moving toward Israel in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.

African migrants gather during a protest in Lewinsky park in Tel Aviv on January 09, 2014. (Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

African asylum seekers are often called “infiltrators” by right-wing politicians who argue they are not fleeing war but are economic migrants, and thus are not eligible for the protections of international and Israeli refugee laws.

Many of the estimated 38,000 migrants have settled in poorer neighborhoods in southern Tel Aviv and other towns, sparking tensions with longtime residents.

A wide coalition of critics in Israel and in the Jewish American community had called Israel’s deportation plans unethical and a stain on the country’s image as a refuge for Jewish migrants. Several mass protests against it have taken place in several Israeli cities in recent months.

The expulsion policy drew further criticism after Netanyahu last month bowed to coalition pressure and nixed his own deal with the United Nations under which roughly half of the migrants would have been resettled in the West and others absorbed in Israel.

Now, Netanyahu is vowing to use the Knesset summer session to pass legislation to reopen asylum seeker detention centers.

Conscription fight not over

According to the compromise deal reached in March, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill was shelved until the parliament’s summer session, when it is now due to be amended based on Defense Ministry recommendations and brought for its final votes.

But that agreement may be hard to come by, with the Yisrael Beytenu party and the ultra-Orthodox at loggerheads over exempting Haredi men from military or national service. If a formulation palatable to both isn’t found, early elections could once again be on the table.

The ultra-Orthodox parties’ insistence on setting the terms of the military conscription bill is strongly opposed by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has vowed that his Yisrael Beytenu party would not fold in the face of demands of their ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

While the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel — revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population — months of sporadic street protests have recently been organized by the so-called Jerusalem Faction, which refuses to have any connection with the military.

Although ultra-Orthodox Israelis are exempted from enlistment, they are required to report to enlistment offices in order to sign a deferral of service, which Jerusalem Faction rabbinic leaders order their students not to do. The protests, usually focused in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and Beit Shemesh, have led to violent clashes with police.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with police during a protest against the arrest of a religious seminary student who failed to comply with a recruitment order, next to the army draft office in Jerusalem, November 28, 2017. (Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 on the grounds that “their studies are their craft.”

Over the years, the High Court of Justice has struck down a number of changes to the laws regarding ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service, finding them to be a violation of the principle of equality.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft: The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of official service to the state in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements. The ultra-Orthodox parties have long been opposed, on principle, to supporting Basic Laws.

Both proposals come ahead of a September deadline by the High Court of Justice to relegislate the issue, after the court disqualified an earlier law on the grounds that it violated principles of equality.

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the option to pass a new law.

This Knesset session, which is set to end in October, will be forced to finally deal with the issue, unless of course MKs succeed in overriding the Supreme Court.

Nation-state bill re-emerges

As part of the agreement to end the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill crisis, ministers also agreed to vote on the first reading of the controversial Jewish State bill immediately after the 2019 budget is approved and “if that is not possible,” due to schedule constraints, to vote on the proposal on the first day of the summer sitting.

As a result, the bill — which seeks to officially define Israel as a Jewish state and enshrine that definition in the country’s Basic Laws — was expected to be brought to its first reading in the plenum on Monday.

Like the conscription bill, the final version of the text will be formulated in coordination with all the coalition parties, which will then be obligated to support it.

If passed in a further two plenary readings, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which, like a constitution, guide Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The current version of the controversial bill allows for the establishment of new communities solely for Jews. The attorney general’s office and the Knesset legal adviser have both said the clause is discriminatory, the report noted. It said the coalition is in quiet agreement that the current version of the bill will likely be shelved after its first reading,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on the “Jewish state” bill, on November 26, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The push to get the bill to the Knesset for a first reading may be designed to protect it in the event of early elections. Once a bill has passed its first reading, even if the government is dissolved, it continues through the legislative process to its second and third readings once the next government is formed.

The bill was first put advanced by Likud MK Avi Dichter in 2014 but, facing criticism from both opposition members and liberal-minded members of his own party, it was shelved soon after. Since then, a number of versions of the legislation have been drafted by right-wing lawmakers but none has made it through the Knesset to become law.

After years of numerous failed attempts, Dichter hopes that this Knesset session will see its final passage into law.

Netanyahu’s ticking clock

Netanyahu’s governments have survived numerous coalition crises and on the face of this, the latest conscientious issues seem no more prickly that previous coalition disagreements.

The key factor in the Knesset session will be whether Netanyahu himself wants to prevent elections.

The prime minister is beset by several corruption allegations, and his coalition partners have hinted they could dismantle the government should he be indicted.

Leaders of coalition parties have insinuated that Netanyahu may be engineering the crises in order to call early elections as a referendum of sorts on his rule, ahead of a possible indictment.

The prime minister is under investigation in multiple corruption investigations, and facing police recommendations to indict him in at least two cases. He is further embattled by deals signed recently by two of his former confidants that will see them testify against him in a third case.

Police investigators arrive at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 19, 2017, to interrogate Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

His Likud defenders are right in their retort that the recommendations and ongoing probes have no legal standing at this stage, and only a decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to press charges could force the prime minister out of office. But Netanyahu’s mantra of “there will be nothing because there is nothing” seems to have been crushed by the weight of the accusations, and many observers predict that Mandelblit will, eventually, have no choice but to indict.

An election campaign, however, would likely delay any legal proceedings until after a new government was sworn in. While numerous police investigations of public officials have been carried out in the lead-up to elections, Israel’s attorney general has never indicted a politician running for office during a campaign.

That could give Netanyahu an additional half-year of breathing room to garner public support and mount a defense against the potential indictments.

Polls have shown Likud handily winning at least 25 seats should elections be held now, enough to stay in power, though Netanyahu’s ability to form a new coalition, or one with the same right-wing partners, could be hampered.

Of course, polls taken before an election has even been announced could change dramatically, and an election perceived to be an attempt to avoid indictment may be unpopular. But while many Israelis want Netanyahu to go, it appears that the corruption allegations may have strengthened the resolve of his supporters.

And that could translate to victory at the polls, and therefore, a tense legislative session ahead.

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