Opposition MKs protested a parliamentary vote on controversial bills on Monday by boycotting the Knesset session and holding an alternative gathering.
Coalition chairman and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog said the meeting of the eight opposition parties in a side hall of the Knesset, an apparent first, was of “great significance to Israeli democracy.”
The opposition refused to participate in the Knesset hearings on three bills — one on universal draft, one on raising the vote threshold for parties to enter parliament, and one on a referendum on any land swap for peace — which they claim are anti-democratic.
“We didn’t want it to come to this, but unfortunately we’ve been forced to because of the obtuseness and complete insensitivity of the coalition,” Herzog said at the opposition meeting. “Citizens ask me: ‘Tell me, isn’t this childish?’ It isn’t childish. Israeli citizens are beginning to understand and listen.”
Defending the move, MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) tweeted that it wasn’t the first time that an opposition broke from parliament.
“It happened in Italy in 1924,” he said on the social media site, “when the democratic opposition broke from the Fascist parliament. I hope it won’t come to that.”
MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition “lies to us all the time.” He voiced skepticism at Israel’s position as the Middle East’s sole functional democracy.
“We see this today, they trample all signs of democracy,” Litzman said. “This time it’s only to boast and pass the laws.”
In the parliament chamber, Knesset members expressed disappointment at the opening of Monday’s plenum that the opposition was boycotting the proceedings.
“You’re allowed to argue, you’re allowed to disagree, you’re allowed to say difficult things, but it’s appropriate to say them in the plenum before the people of Israel — that’s what we get paid for,” Knesset chairman Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said.
Herzog earlier on Monday rejected a compromise offer by the governing coalition on a series of controversial votes, saying the attempt to stave off a boycott of the session was “too little too late.”
On Sunday night, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition had offered an extra day of Knesset discussions in the hopes of coaxing the opposition to attend debates over the contentious Governance Bill, Equal Service Bill, and Referendum Bill.
The Governance Bill would increase the electoral threshold for political parties to enter the Knesset, which critics claim would force the Arab parties, which are small, to unite or be disenfranchised. Discussions on the bill were set to 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 Equal Service Bill would establish a new conscription policy for the ultra-Orthodox community, levying criminal sanctions on draft dodgers. Debate would last until the final vote slated for Wednesday at 10 a.m.
The Referendum Bill would establish a semi-constitutional Basic Law requiring a national referendum for any land withdrawal in a future peace accord. A similar law was passed in 2010, but its legitimacy was challenged in the High Court of Justice, since only Basic Laws can take power away from the Knesset. The bill faces a final vote on Thursday morning.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.