AnalysisOpposition can't influence content; can only vote yes/no

Netanyahu-led parties missing in action as Knesset reopens with budget at stake

Fateful, long-delayed budget bill is moving smoothly forward, in part because the right-wing opposition, furious at being sidelined from key committees, has walked away altogether

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset plenum alongside Knesset Speaker Miki Levy on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset plenum alongside Knesset Speaker Miki Levy on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Monday morning, the Knesset returned from its fall recess to one of the most fraught and consequential winter sessions in memory.

The first state budget bill in over three years hangs in the balance and with it the fate of the new Bennett-Lapid government, a government that hangs by a thread, dependent on the narrowest possible parliamentary majority of 61 reliable votes out of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Passing the budget should be all but impossible for such a narrow coalition. Every debate should be tense, every vote a nail-biter.

But as with most things surrounding this strange new government, things are moving forward with surprising speed and efficiency. Many committees have been meeting during the recess period to prepare sections of the budget bill for a plenum vote, and almost invariably those meetings have been calm, efficient and decisive.

And it’s all thanks to Likud and the right-wing opposition, who are almost entirely missing in action.

It’s not just that Likud and other right-wing party MKs are failing to show up to committee meetings, though almost none have shown up. It’s also that an ongoing fight over committee seats has meant that the opposition parties have refused to name their committee assignments — and under Knesset rules have therefore forfeited their voting rights in committee.

Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism, by their own choice, have lost all power to influence the content of the budget. They retain only the right to cast an up-or-down vote in the plenum on the final budget bill

It’s entirely unprecedented and a telling sign of the new political normal: For the first time in the Knesset’s 73-year history, opposition lawmakers are not permitted to vote on the budget bills in committee and are rarely willing to even show up to debate them. (A careful examination of the protocols of the major Knesset committees last month by the website Shakuf reveals that none of the Likud’s front bench, the top ten MKs on its Knesset slate, has attended a single committee meeting in the first four months of the coalition’s existence.)

The upshot: Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism, by their own choice, have lost all power to influence the content of the budget. They retain only the right to cast an up-or-down vote in the plenum on the final budget bill.

Shutting out the opposition

After its swearing-in on June 13, the new government immediately began butting heads with the newly minted opposition, which greeted the new coalition by declaring it “illegitimate,” “fraudulent,” and “a government of lies.”

Coalition leaders, especially coalition chair MK Idit Silman and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, understood from the start that the coalition’s greatest obstacle would be the passage of the budget bill by November.

In a mid-July vote in the Knesset Arrangements Committee chaired by Silman, the coalition divvied up the seats on the Knesset’s key committees to give itself enormous majorities, including a three-seat majority in the critical Knesset House Committee and a two-seat majority in the Finance, Law and Welfare committees.

Members of the Knesset House Committee vote to establish a swath of new parliamentary committees, July 25, 2021. (Knesset)

By sidelining the opposition so dramatically, fumed Likud’s Yariv Levin, the coalition was “twisting the fundamental principle of democracy.”

Likud threatened to petition against the decision to the High Court of Justice by July 20. There’s an irony in the threat; Likud has long argued that the High Court has no power to intervene in the Knesset’s internal procedures and processes. Indeed, when a petition against the committee assignments was finally submitted on July 28, the party decided not to support it as a faction. Likud MKs David Bitan, Miri Regev, Kati Sheetrit and Patin Mula and Shas MKs Moshe Arbel and Michael Malchieli were signed on the petition individually.

The legal case is beside the point in this political tale. Suffice it to say that both sides have reason to believe they’re in the right.

Likud is correct in its complaint that the paltry committee placements initially offered to the opposition in mid-July were the most lopsided in the Knesset’s history, and would prevent the opposition from fulfilling its role of oversight and critique of the government’s work — “a cornerstone of democracy,” in the words of the Likud MKs’ attorney Ilan Bombach before the High Court.

Likud’s case has been taken up in recent weeks even by liberal-leaning advocacy groups such as the Israel Democracy Institute, which share to various degrees the opposition’s disquiet over the undemocratic sidelining of the parliamentary opposition.

But the coalition is right, too, when it points out that Likud is deliberately trying to engineer a crisis in a bid to declare the budget process illegitimate and force new elections by preventing its passage. Likud has refused to negotiate on the committee assignments and refused even to acknowledge new and fairer offers from the coalition.

In a High Court hearing on August 9, the justices criticized the Likud MKs’ petition against the original mid-July offer, noting that the coalition had offered a much more equitable division on July 23 that included a reduction of the coalition’s majority in most committees. Likud’s petition was filed five days after that amended offer without mentioning it, the justices noted. The implication was clear: The petition was written not for the court, but for the public campaign.

Likud MKs David Bitan, center, and Fateen Mulla, right, meet Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, left, at a High Court of Justice hearing on August 9, 2021 concerning committee assignments in the Knesset. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Unintended consequences

There is a larger irony here. A great many of the steps taken by the coalition to reduce the opposition’s influence in the current Knesset were pioneered by Likud. For example, Likud complains that the coalition is keeping the Economy Committee chairmanship for itself, a sharp break from past practice that saw the committee responsible for overseeing the government’s main economic regulatory agencies handed to the opposition. But it’s not quite a precedent: The Economy Committee was already denied to the opposition by last year’s ill-fated Netanyahu-Gantz coalition.

It’s a recurring theme of this government, the way Likud’s habit in recent years of carelessly rewriting and restructuring fundamental constitutional and procedural rules to serve the political needs of the moment has been consistently boomeranging. Likud MKs lost their committee voting rights on September 11 because of a stipulation in the Knesset bylaws written by Likud that strips a faction of its committee voting rights if it fails to name members to the committee within 90 days of the coalition’s formation. That stipulation was authored by Yariv Levin a few years ago in a bid to prevent opposition parties from doing precisely what Likud is doing now.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

And, of course, it was Benjamin Netanyahu himself who in May 2020 added to Israel’s constitutional Basic Laws the new “parity government” structure, the very mechanism that, 13 months on, allowed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid to team up to oust him.

Indeed, the very fact that Likud, unprecedentedly, refused to pass a budget bill for two long years has left many coalition MKs unmoved by the party’s cries of indignation over the new coalition’s aggressive efforts to ensure the new budget bill passes. There is a grim determination in the coalition not to let Likud fell yet another year’s budget.

Likud MK David Amsalem addresses the plenum during a debate on the state budget bill, September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The upshot here is simple. Neither side is more dastardly than the other. Both are responsible for breaking with the longstanding traditions that ensured parliamentary fairness; Likud set some key precedents in recent years, but the new coalition, leaning on those precedents, took that new brand of slash-and-burn politics to a new level.

Neither side can afford to flinch until the budget passes on or before November 14. Likud and its allies’ boycott of the legislative process in a bid to depict the new budget as undemocratic and illegitimate actually makes its passage more likely.

But what comes after the budget fight? Having successfully delivered new funding and policy reforms for their constituents, will the coalition’s eight disparate factions begin to fall apart? Or will the coalition, having already survived far longer than most observers expected, prove its mettle yet again and soldier on?

One safe prediction: This new brand of no-holds-barred politics is here to stay.

Or as Likud’s David Amsalem put it in the Knesset Arrangements Committee in July, “You will pay for this. When the day comes, you won’t believe what we’ll do to you.”

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