Thorny legislation foreshadows early elections as Knesset winter session begins

3 contentious religion-and-state hot potatoes threaten to break up the government and spur a national poll. That might be just what Netanyahu wants

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

A Knesset worker preparing the parliament for the opening of the winter sitting, October 14, 2018. (Knesset)
A Knesset worker preparing the parliament for the opening of the winter sitting, October 14, 2018. (Knesset)

When members of the 20th Knesset were sworn into office shortly after the last elections in March 2015, politicians and pundits alike predicted a short life for both the parliament and the yet-to-be finalized coalition, which would only be sworn in two months later.

With the previous Knesset having been dissolved after barely two years and with a new set of jittery coalition partners already making demands, the newly elected MKs were warned not to get too comfortable in their plush leather plenary seats. And indeed, with the return of the two ultra-Orthodox parties to the government after two years out in the cold and the eventual affiliation of four other parties — all with their own agendas and promises to fulfill — crisis after crisis dogged the coalition from day one.

As the Knesset returns on Monday from recess for its seventh semiannual opening since that first shaky swearing in, the parliament that defied those grim predictions is set for another thorny legislative slog — with the prickly issues of the past nearly four years coming to a head in what may be its last sitting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opening speech to the parliament’s winter sitting on Monday may give clues as to whether he, as several sources close to him claim, plans to call a snap election before the November 2019 deadline. Doing so would take advantage of his strong showing in recent polls and potentially preempt a corruption indictment currently under review by the attorney general.

Israelis, however, have traditionally shown disfavor toward the party perceived to have brought down the government. Thus, instead of calling the election himself, Netanyahu may hope to rely on a series of contentious bills — pitting the ultra-Orthodox against the other parties in his coalition — to pull apart the delicate threads holding it together. Vying for more seats in the Knesset and more influence in the next government, his junior partners are all eager to show their mettle to their own electorates — even if doing so brings the house down at the same time.

Fighting conscription

The most urgent legislative business, and perhaps the most barbed, is passing a new ultra-Orthodox conscription bill before a December 2 deadline imposed by the Supreme Court.

Until Sunday, the issue — revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or religious seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population — appeared to be irreconcilable and a sure bet to cause the Knesset’s dissolution within weeks if not days.

Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva 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 profession.” But if new legislation is not voted into law by the Supreme Court-imposed deadline, or if elections are not called forcing the deadline to be extended, current deferral regulations would expire with the deadline and thousands of yeshiva students would find themselves unable to renew their deferments, making them eligible to be drafted by the IDF.

Illustrative: Students in a Jerusalem yeshiva, August 16, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

In a surprising move, the rabbinical council governing a key faction within the United Torah Judaism party gave the green light Sunday for its leaders to hold talks with Netanyahu in order to reach an agreement over the latest version of the military enlistment bill.

The bill, written by the Defense Ministry, sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas where they study. At the same time, it also formalizes exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Signaling that it does not intend to bring down the government over the issue, the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael agreed to consider backing the Defense Ministry’s bill if “a few changes are made,” a source within the party said. Still, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who heads the staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party, has said he will not accept any change to the legislation, potentially clouding the coalition’s prospects of reaching a compromise on the matter.

Factions of the ultra-Orthodox community — Shas Council of Torah Sages, Hassidic Agudat Yisrael and Lithuanian Degel Hatorah — meet in Bnei Brak ahead of a mass rally against the military draft bill, February 24, 2014. (FLASH90)

But while the Council of Torah Sages said that the Agudat Yisrael faction will vote against the bill if the changes they are seeking are not made, it also ruled that its MKs will not quit the coalition if the legislation is advanced. With Agudat Yisrael holding four of UTJ’s six Knesset seats, the bill could still gain a majority of Knesset votes by garnering the support of the opposition’s Yesh Atid party, which has said it will support the bill in its current form.

Were the ultra-Orthodox parties to leave the coalition, the government would not have a majority, forcing Netanyahu to either bring opposition parties into his government or head to early elections.

Reforming conversion

If, with the help of God and/or the rabbis, the conscription bill doesn’t bring down the government, another issue spurred by a Supreme Court ruling stirring up religious and state tensions could.

In March 2016, upending years of state policy, the High Court decided that non-Israelis who were converted to Judaism in Israel by private, mostly ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts outside of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate could seek Israeli citizenship.

Currently, the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate has the monopoly on state-recognized conversions to Judaism, a situation that alienates Conservative and Reform movement Jews. While the Law of Return stipulates that any individual who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or has converted in a recognized court outside the State of Israel, may apply for Israeli citizenship, it does not provide for such a citizen’s automatic recognition as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate.

Immediately following the landmark decision, the Orthodox parties in the coalition began renewed attempts at legislation and regulation of conversion through state auspices alone.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (3rd-R) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2nd-L) attend a conference in Lod on November 20, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A bill advanced in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in April would create an independent Orthodox authority that would control all recognized conversions in Israel. The bill, similar to one put forth last year and then shelved following a backlash, would give the Chief Rabbinate control over all recognized conversions in Israel and would strip recognition from any conversions — Orthodox or not — that occurred outside of the authority’s auspices.

But despite its green light from the high-powered coalition committee, several coalition partners — led again by Yisrael Beytenu, whose largely Russian immigrant voter base has faced myriad issues with the Chief Rabbinate — cried foul and vowed to oppose the move.

Israel’s chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

Attempting to avert another coalition crisis, Netanyahu appointed Moshe Nissim, a former justice, finance, and industry minister, to come up with a proposal for a uniform conversion process under the auspices of a new  state-authorized Orthodox body. The eventual proposal sought not to change Orthodox control over the state’s official conversion apparatus, but to remove the matter from the Chief Rabbinate’s oversight.

The Nissim plan, however, was immediately dismissed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and United Torah Judaism’s MK Moshe Gafni, who said they would block the proposed reforms, holding up coalition agreements that gave them a veto over religious and state issues.

The Knesset summer break has allowed for a lull in the loggerheaded bickering, but United Torah Judasim has vowed to pass its version of the reform bill in the coming sitting — an ambitious but onerous promise to keep.

Surrogate votes

While the Supreme Court can (and has) been blamed for bringing the conscription and conversion bills to a head, a third religion-and-state hot potato may have been baked, inadvertently, by Netanyahu himself.

In the last week of the most recent summer session, Netanyahu pledged to pass legislation supporting surrogacy for gay fathers, but then, just days later, voted against it under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners when the Knesset passed a surrogacy bill that extended eligibility to single women, but not to men. Previously, the right had only been extended to married, heterosexual couples.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a message for the Jerusalem gay pride parade, July 21, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Netanyahu had initially, in a triumphant press statement, expressed support for a clause to be added to the legislation that would have extended surrogacy rights to gay couples, but at the last minute made an about-face. Amid mounting criticism, he denied that he had changed his position, saying he voted against the measure to ensure the bill would pass. He vowed to support a separate bill legalizing surrogacy for gay couples at a later Knesset session.

But the damage had been done, and the LGBT community launched nationwide protests and strikes that were attended by tens of thousands of Israelis across the country. Now, with the Knesset back in session, they are demanding that the prime minister fulfill his promise to expand surrogacy rights further. And MKs from the coalition’s Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu and Netanyahu’s own Likud party have joined the calls.

Members of the LGBT community and supporters participate in a protest against a Knesset bill amendment denying surrogacy for same-sex couples, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on July 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For the poll-obsessed Netnayahu, the issue could be more of a burden than conscription or conversion with a majority of Israelis, including potential Likud voters, backing extended surrogacy.

A July poll published showed 56 percent of the public supports the LGBT protests, while only 33% oppose them. Though right-wing parties are traditionally seen as socially conservative, the poll showed 51% of Likud voters backed the protests. Perhaps more surprisingly, so did 58% of voters for the largely religious Jewish Home.

Next week, in one of the first tests of the new Knesset sitting, Netanyahu will have to attend a special Knesset session on gay rights, after Yesh Atid gathered the 40 necessary signatures obliging the premier’s presence and response.

If he was tempted to advance the legislation he had promised, his ultra-Orthodox coalition parties, issuing even harsher threats than they made regarding the conscription and conversion bills, have this time been unequivocal in their promise to pull out of the government and trigger new elections if there is “any move whatsoever” toward increased gay rights.

Then again, that may be just what Netanyahu wants.

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