PM boots rebel MKs from committee, insists on urgent vote on jobs-for-rabbis law

Otzma Yehudit accuses Shas of making ‘political deal’ with Arabs to pass controversial bill; ultra-Orthodox party slams ‘lies’ and ‘blackmail,’ demands coalition partner’s support

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Likud MKs Tally Gotliv, left, and Moshe Saada attend a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 18, 2024; they both expressed opposition to the so-called "Rabbis Bill." (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MKs Tally Gotliv, left, and Moshe Saada attend a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 18, 2024; they both expressed opposition to the so-called "Rabbis Bill." (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition whip Ofir Katz is set to unilaterally substitute two new lawmakers for members of his Likud party on the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee ahead of a vote Wednesday on the so-called “Rabbis Bill,” after their vocal objections stalled the legislation’s advance.

On Tuesday morning, the committee postponed the vote due to fierce opposition to the legislation by both coalition and opposition lawmakers, with chairman Simcha Rothman singling out Likud MKs Moshe Saada and Tally Gotliv for special opprobrium.

“It would be a shame and disgrace if you remained silent for three months during the waffling over Rafah but were willing to blow everything up for the Rabbis Law,” Rothman said, only hours before the committee announced a new vote on Wednesday morning.

If passed into law, the bill could cost taxpayers tens of millions of shekels annually in salaries for hundreds of new neighborhood rabbis employed by local municipalities.

It would also greatly expand the influence of the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry in the appointment of municipal rabbis at the expense of local authorities — while also eroding the role of women in the process.

Challenging the coalition

Responding to their suspension from the committee, as ordered by Likud party leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both Saada and Gotliv issued defiant challenges to their own party.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discusses a bill to expand the number of municipal rabbis across the country, June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Today in the Constitution Committee we saw mayors, including those representing the Likud party, crying out against the injustice that this law creates, and I am proud to stand by them and by the majority of the public even at the cost of removal from the committee,” Saada tweeted.

“Since the beginning of the war, I have criticized the government whenever it deviates from the values ​​that I and the majority of right-wing voters advocate, and I will continue to fulfill my role without fear.”

Gotliv, who had reportedly initially agreed to be replaced by another lawmaker for Tuesday’s vote but ultimately backtracked, accused Katz of acting as a “pawn of Deri and Netanyahu.”

Katz “does not have the authority to do this without the House Committee but he is doing it anyway,” she said, condemning those she accused of backing a “corrupt patronage law during wartime.”

Aryeh Deri is the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. On Monday evening, Channel 12 reported he had threatened to bring down the government if the bill isn’t passed.

Critics of the bill charge that it would benefit Shas by providing jobs for its apparatchiks.

Asked about Saada and Gotliv’s ouster from his committee, Rothman told The Times of Israel that “when you are part of a coalition you don’t always have to agree with every [piece of] legislation that passes. Not as a Knesset member who has to vote and not even as the head of a committee.”

Shas party leader MK Aryeh Deri in the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I think that Tally Gotliv and Moshe Saada have all the legitimacy to say [their piece] and try to influence and convince [others] of their views about a law that was in the coalition agreements and needed by the partners in the coalition, but once a decision has been made not to agree with them they need to vote with the coalition. That’s the way the system in Israel works,” he said.

A bill revived

Following pushback by National Unity leader Benny Gantz and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, the bill had been indefinitely put on ice by lawmakers earlier this year but their subsequent exit from the coalition paved the way for its reintroduction.

After it was placed back on the committee’s docket, Saada accused the Religious Zionism party of acting “like thieves in the night” — while Gotliv posted on an internal committee WhatsApp group that “there are enough laws to prepare that are connected to the war.”

“Leave the disputes and this law for better days and take it off the agenda,” she wrote at the time.

Lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition voiced objections to the reintroduction of the law during Tuesday’s hearing, with Gotliv repeatedly interrupting the proceedings as Rothman called for order.

Chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman heads a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The committee’s Likud members planned to vote against the bill because “the heads of the [local] authorities know how to decide [on rabbis] better than the ministries,” Gotliv told Rothman.

During the hearing, Rothman ordered the removal of Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzanu after he loudly decried the law. In a tweet, Lahav-Hertzanu called the committee meeting a “horror show by Simcha Rothman, who just threw me out of the committee just because I asked a question about a section of the law.”

The law is “a moral disgrace, and I will continue to oppose it with all my might,” he said.

Representatives of local government, who would be expected to shoulder part of the financial burden of the newly appointed rabbis, also came out swinging against Rothman on Tuesday.

“Is now the time to bring in this stupid legislation?” asked Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, left, attends a Chief Rabbinate Council meeting with his Sephardic counterpart Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau’s father and predecessor Meir Lau, in Jerusalem on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

“You should be ashamed,” he yelled, accusing lawmakers of adding further financial burden on his municipality during wartime “instead of discussing how to help the city of Ashkelon.”

“Thirty people were murdered in my city [on October 7],” he declared. “There is no sense to this.”

Later on Tuesday evening, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party decried what it claimed was a “political deal” between Likud, Shas and the United Arab List party in which MK Mansour Abbas would abstain from voting in the committee.

In a statement, Shas party calls Otzma Yehudit’s claim a “complete lie,” declaring that it had not made “any agreement with any Arab party or any opposition party to support the Rabbis Law” and expects to pass it with all 64 members of the coalition voting in favor in the Knesset plenum.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir is “spreading lies in order to blackmail Shas into accepting the appointment of rabbis he desires, or the appointment of one or another chief rabbi,” the ultra-Orthodox party accused.

“Shas expects that the coalition agreement signed with it will be fulfilled, and if Itamar Ben Gvir decides to violate coalition discipline and vote against the law the responsibility will be solely on him.”

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