Quiet revolution afoot as reforms sail through Knesset

Quiet revolution afoot as reforms sail through Knesset

Electoral change, pay equality, raised marriage age, rabbinical competition — a stream of liberal legislation is moving with unexpected ease through an ostensibly right-wing government

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

View of the Knesset plenum hall, October 14, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
View of the Knesset plenum hall, October 14, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A slow-moving legislative revolution is taking place that may dramatically change how Israelis live their lives.

“When the sun rose later [than expected] because we extended daylight savings, they said it was a symbolic, minor thing,” MK Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid) said on Wednesday. “When we fought for equality in the [military] burden, they said we stood no chance. But by the time we opened up regional marriage registration, nobody was saying anything…. Wonderful things are happening here that for years were only talked about.”

Levy’s triumphalism over some of this government’s major domestic reforms is no mere political rhetoric. Monday’s passage of the so-called Tzohar bill, opening up Israel’s local rabbinates to competition, would have been seen, correctly, as politically impossible only a year ago.

Yet on the day after that legislative victory — achieved with the leadership of the Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties — Yesh Atid already had a new initiative in the pipeline.

In a coordinated, PR-intensive campaign that included slogans, graphic banners and a coordinated call for Facebook “likes,” the party announced a new civil marriage bill, which it formally submitted on Tuesday. The bill, as yet in its infancy, would create a non-religious track for civil unions among Israelis, including across religious and ethnic groups, and even for gays and lesbians.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the responses to Yesh Atid’s campaign were as important to understanding where the political winds are blowing as the radical (in Israeli terms) civil union bill itself.

A day after the Tzohar bill’s passage and just hours after the initial announcement of Yesh Atid’s civil union bill, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) took to Facebook to announce that she, too, was planning to introduce liberal domestic reforms.

“In the coming days I’m advancing a domestic partnership bill that would grant marriage to those who don’t want to or can’t use the rabbinate; a ‘prenup’ bill creating premarital contracts to combat the phenomenon of [those trapped in a marriage because of a husband’s] refusal to give a writ of divorce; and [a bill creating] a single chief rabbi for Israel, instead of two,” she wrote. She was doing all these things “because Judaism doesn’t belong to extremist rabbis — it belongs to us all.”

In his off-the-cuff list of reforms already undertaken in the nine short months of the 19th Knesset’s existence, the excited Levy, usually viewed as a hardened former Jerusalem police chief, might have pointed to bills legalizing certain uses for marijuana, electoral reforms meant to shrink the size of the cabinet and the outsize influence of small parties, a bill requiring companies to track pay inequality between men and women, or the raising of the minimum marriage age.

The minimum marriage age bill is a particularly interesting example of the ease with which liberalizing legislation is passing in the current Knesset.

The bill would raise the minimum legal age of marriage from 17 to 18, helping to empower women in “traditional societies” (as MKs who pushed the bill euphemistically refer to haredi and Muslim Israelis) who face social pressure to marry while they are still minors.

The issue is not a theoretical one. Each year, some 4,000 girls, mostly among Israel’s Muslims, marry before reaching legal adulthood, and 1,500 find themselves pregnant before their 18th birthday.

Efforts to advance the reform measure have been stymied for over a decade. On Wednesday, it passed almost unnoticed through its final reading in the Knesset Law Committee, with only a perfunctory protest from haredi MKs. It now requires final approval in the Knesset plenum to become law.

The left celebrated immediately.

Raising the marriage age has been “a years-long fight,” noted Meretz chair MK Zehava Galon, “and it would not have happened without our stubborn insistence and persistence and those of women’s organizations who have led the struggle for the past decade.”

First-term Labor MK Merav Michaeli also emphasized the long struggle to push the measure forward. “It took four Knessets for the state to approve this law, and we’ve finally arrived at the moment where we’re going to protect the basic rights of minors, and primarily of girls who are married off as children without the ability to choose.”

But the bill won as much praise on the right as it did on the left. Indeed, it passed in a Law Committee where the right-wing coalition enjoys a structural majority, and whose powerful chairman is a religious member of the Yisrael Beytenu party.

“All studies show that a majority of women [who marry before age 18] suffer from poverty and violence,” MK Gila Gamliel (Likud) said after the bill’s successful passage out of the committee. The bill would “enable these women to finish their [high school] studies and decide to marry as an informed choice.”

Indeed, while the left applauded its own efforts to advance the issue, the current bill was actually proposed by Coalition Chair MK Yariv Levin from the right-leaning Likud party.

The current government is, on paper, the most right wing in a long time. On the Palestinian question there is undoubtedly a resurgence of the annexationist right, in parliament if not in public opinion polls. And there’s a newfound willingness in that camp to question the assumptions underlying the two-decade-old peace process. But in key domestic arenas — including religion and state, electoral reform and personal status law — this government and Knesset may turn out to be the most liberal and reformist that Israel has ever known. The rhetoric is there, and the political will has already partially proven itself in the passage of long-delayed reforms.

In fact, this liberalizing trend on domestic matters has not been limited to the Jewish mainstream. The government also reiterated this week its commitment to unprecedented levels of investment in Israel’s Arab population, especially in education and infrastructure. At a conference in Tel Aviv Tuesday devoted to economic development for the Arab sector, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid said explicitly that the government saw the socio-economic strengthening of the Arab sector as one of its key responsibilities and as a primary engine for Israel’s future economic growth. With plans underway to invest an additional NIS 5 billion over five years toward development in the Arab sector, this government’s spending on the Arab community will be higher than any other’s in Israeli history.

To be sure, the 19th Knesset is as fractured and argumentative as its predecessors. The coalition appears distinctly less stable than in the last Knesset, with profound disagreements over peace talks and growing competition between member parties over their overlapping constituencies. There are powerful centrifugal forces pulling at the seams of this government, and some of the most important domestic reforms, especially the expansion of national service, remain as difficult to resolve as ever.

But there is also a clear consciousness of a mainstream liberal consensus, for the first time unencumbered by the political obstacles raised in the past by haredi parties. This consensus has shown it can deliver unprecedented funds for Arab socioeconomic development, strengthen the status of women, expand access to marriage and break monopolies in state religious services. With surprisingly little fanfare or even much protest, the Knesset may, at long last, be entering a transformative moment of political reform.

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