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Bills on US visa-free travel, Tel Aviv metro nixed on last Knesset day before recess

Likud-led opposition rejects the coalition’s pleas to pass two key pieces of legislation; two other bills pass first readings

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Justice Minister Gideon Saar speaks in the Knsset on July 4, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Saar speaks in the Knsset on July 4, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Hours before the Knesset closed for election recess on Monday, critical pieces of legislation that would advance the construction of a Tel Aviv-centered metro system and Israel’s inclusion in the US’s Visa Waiver Program were set aside, as negotiations between coalition and opposition negotiations broke down.

“They won’t come up because there are no agreements [on them],” said a spokesperson for coalition whip Boaz Toporovsky, who helped lead negotiations with the Likud-led opposition.

Over the past two weeks, coalition and opposition negotiators have been locked in battle, hammering out agreements on final pieces of legislation to pass as the 24th Knesset heads toward elections, and strong-arming each other on other bills.

While it is possible to pass bills during the break, election recess rules mandate opposition support in order to bring them to the plenum floor — which blocks their way until a 25th Knesset is situated.

Last Thursday, the Knesset voted to disband and called elections — Israel’s fifth in under four yearsfor November 1.

The decision came after three politically turbulent months, culminating in then-prime minister Naftali Bennett and his successor Yair Lapid’s June 20 announcement that they had “exhausted” their ability to stabilize the coalition and would close the curtain on their own government.

Incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid sits attends the final vote on the bill that dispersed the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After Thursday’s vote to disperse, the plenum session continued, and MKs advanced and in some cases passed about 40 last-minute bills. Running out of time to deal with all outstanding legislation, they returned Monday for a final plenum session — but the coalition and opposition again failed to reach agreement on the Metro Law and legislation relating to the US Visa Waiver program. The House Committee also met on Monday, and formally sent the Knesset into recess from Tuesday.

Only two bills were sent to the plenum on Monday, and both bills sailed through their first readings since the battling political blocs had agreed on them.

Then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with MK Boaz Toporovsky (R) during a Knesset discussion, June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The first piece of legislation advanced by MKs in a first reading would enable GPS-based monitoring to ensure domestic abusers’ compliance with restraining orders, and is expected to apply to about 1,600 offenders, according to a December assessment from the Public Security Ministry.

About 10,000 restraining orders requests are filed each year, and about 90 percent are approved, according the Knesset’s research wing. While data is not currently available on the number of restraining order violations, an average of 600 violation complaints are filed per year, the majority by female victims.

The second bill advanced on the floor Monday would require video documentation when police use water cannons to disperse crowds, in part to provide evidence for civil court claims against the police when damages occur.

Although the plenum is going on recess, passing the bills through their first reading is important in two ways. First, crossing the first reading hurdle is enough to trigger the so-called Continuity Clause. Under the clause, bills that pass their first reading before a Knesset is dissolved are frozen in legislative time, and can be renewed later during the following Knesset. This can shave months, or even years, off the legislative process.

Second, on Monday, the Knesset House Committee released parameters for passing legislation during the election recess. If the government or 25 MKs want to convene the plenum, they can. But only legislation approved via the Agreements Committee — which will be staffed by coalition whip Toporovsky and a yet-to-be-named opposition lawmaker — will be brought to a vote.

The bill that would advance visa-free travel to the US has not yet passed its first reading, but the metro bill has.

Finance Minister and Israel Beytenu party chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After much back-and-forth, lawmakers ultimately pulled a vote on whether to cancel two hotly debated orders coming down from Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer. The orders, which gradually reduce tariffs on imported fruits and vegetables, have been touted by Liberman as measures that would reduce the cost of living. The farm lobby, on the other hand, says the competition it will introduce will hurt domestic growers and threaten Israel’s ability to control its own food supply.

Liberman on Monday called the fruit and vegetable tariff cancelation orders “the real test for all those who talk about the cost of living” and said that anyone who “votes in favor of revoking the orders raises prices.”

The finance minister said negotiations with farmers were conducted on Monday morning, along with Forer, also from Yisrael Beytenu, who has been pushing the agriculture import reforms. A spokesman for Forer said that an agreement to augment the existing order was ultimately reached, leading to the cancelation vote being pulled in the early evening, but did not disclose its details.

Liberman also has been an outspoken advocate for passing the metro bill, which would set Israel’s largest mass-transit infrastructure project in motion.

“I think it is a grave mistake not to raise the Metro Law. It is a wrong message, it is a message that politics comes before citizens, that politics comes before material considerations in favor of the economy,” the finance minister said at a faction meeting of his party in the Knesset.

He joins Toporovsky, who wrote a letter to Likud negotiator MK Yariv Levin on Sunday to plead for the metro bill.

“It is not too late,” Toporovsky wrote, according to the Israel Hayom daily. “We have four months of campaigning where we will quarrel and quarrel, but a moment before, it is important that we unite for the public that elected us all, including you, for future generations, for the relief of citizens, without any political gain or credit.”

Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and faction chair Yariv Levin (R) lead their party’s faction meeting at the Knesset, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tel Aviv and its surrounding area suffer from punishing traffic congestion, which is only expected to worsen as Israel’s population rapidly grows. Experts cite public transportation as the main solution to reduce frustration on the roads.

Election campaigning has already softly begun, especially in Likud, which expects to have a primary in early August. The metro bill is tightly associated with Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, the Labor party leader, as well as Liberman – both staunchly opposed to the Likud-led camp. Thus, the metro bill has become a political football tossed among rivals.

A spokesperson for Levin said that there is “no reason to give them the metro,” because the coalition overrode the opposition to press forward with its preferred election date last Thursday.

“Last week, before the Knesset dispersed, we offered the Metro Law in exchange for an October 25 election date, but they refused and they set November 1, so we have no reason to give them the metro,” the spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

Likud has also maintained its opposition to passing the visa waiver-related bill, despite uncharacteristic US interference.

Last week, US Ambassador Tom Nides passed messages to Likud leaders asking them to unblock the bill, as well as publicly tweeting an entreaty that lawmakers not “lose the momentum now.”

Nides’s calls came with US President Joe Biden scheduled to visit Israel in less than two weeks. With election campaigns ramping up in the backdrop, the opposition is less than pleased that its chief electoral rival – Lapid – will be receiving Biden as prime minister. Blocking this bill is embarrassing not only to Lapid, but also to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is competing with opposition parties for right-wing votes.

“About the visas, there are more principle-based issues, dealing with permits and things that are in the law that we object to on principle,” the Levin spokesperson said.

Last week, a spokesperson for Yoav Kisch, the other Likud negotiator, said that the party wants to put the bill through a longer evaluation process, given concerns with information sharing and softening scrutiny of Palestinian Americans transiting through Israel.

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