Vote on culture loyalty bill set for delay as Kulanu party pulls support

Moshe Kahlon says he won’t enforce party discipline on Knesset vote for contentious legislation pushed by culture minister, after MKs balk at backing bill

Israeli artists burns works to protest the cultural loyalty bill in Tel Aviv on November 25, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli artists burns works to protest the cultural loyalty bill in Tel Aviv on November 25, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A planned Knesset vote on controversial legislation that would grant the Culture Ministry the power to withhold funding based on political criteria appeared set to be delayed after a key coalition party said it would let members vote how they wish, placing passage of the bill under doubt.

The so-called culture loyalty bill proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev has been criticized as a form of censorship over the arts.

On Sunday two coalition Knesset members said they would vote against it, and Kulanu party head Moshe Kahlon said he would not enforce party discipline on the vote.

With the coalition holding onto power with a razor-thin 61-59 majority, every vote needs either bipartisan backing or total coalition support to pass.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria said earlier Sunday that the bill would be “difficult to support” if it comes up for its scheduled final plenary votes on Monday.

Moshe Kahlon (R) and Rachel Azaria shake hands at a press conference in Jerusalem announcing Azaria will join the Kulanu party on January 6, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I call on the coalition not to bring the culture loyalty bill to a vote,” she said in a statement.

Veteran Likud MK Benny Begin informed coalition chair David Amsalem that he would also vote against the bill, according to Likud sources.

Likud MK Benny Begin during a Foreign Affairs and Security Committee at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Kahlon, who is finance minister, said Sunday evening that lawmakers from his party would be free to vote as they wish on the legislation, as well as on several other contentious bills being pushed by the government.

Those include a proposal by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to allow ministers to appoint their ministries’ own legal advisers, and another bill seeking to eliminate a loophole that would allow President Reuven Rivlin to nominate a lawmaker who doesn’t lead a party as prime minister.

The loyalty legislation, proposed by Regev and supported by Kahlon himself, would allow the government to pull funding from organizations or events that feature any of five topics or themes: denial that the State of Israel is a Jewish, democratic country; incitement to racism, violence, or terror; support for the armed struggle or acts of terror against Israel by an enemy state or a terror group; marking Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning; or any act of destruction or physical degradation of the flag or any state symbol.

Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 8, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Yedioth Ahronoth/ Pool/ Flash90)

While the Finance Ministry is currently responsible for final decisions on withholding such state funding, Regev’s bill would transfer full power over budgets for the arts to her ministry.

Critics say the bill will essentially enshrine state censorship over the arts.

Responding to Azaria and Begin’s announced opposition, Regev said Sunday, “We will pass the law without them,” and called on Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who recently bolted the coalition along with his party’s five seats, to fulfill a previous vow to support the bill.

“The national camp will not forgive you for this. You as a former defense minister know that toppling this law will be a reward for terrorism,” she said.

Earlier, Yisrael Beytenu said its MKs would consider voting in favor of the bill in exchange for support for its own bill to make it easier for Israel to sentence convicted Palestinian terrorists to death.

“We will behave according to the famous saying by the prime minister: ‘If they give some, they will get some. If they don’t give some — they won’t get anything’,” the party said in a statement.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, October 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The death penalty proposal, which is sponsored by the party, passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset in January, despite reservations by some coalition lawmakers. Its progress since then has been repeatedly delayed due to opposition from the security establishment. Since leaving the coalition, Liberman has been near powerless to push it through committee.

The so-called Cultural Loyalty Bill was finalized for its second and third readings by the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee last week, with eight MKs in favor and six opposed, along coalition and opposition lines.

The legislation was tweaked at the request of three government MKs, to include a clause that would force the culture minister to consult with professional staff before pulling funding. It also says that no ministry official may submit a recommendation to withdraw funding unless they have personally seen the artwork.

“We recommend that coalition members get their sleeping bags ready, because there will be a very long filibuster on Monday,” the opposition Zionist Union faction said in a statement, after the legislation was approved by the parliamentary panel.

The bill has been criticized by artists, the Knesset’s legal adviser and a deputy attorney general.

Hundreds attend a protest against the ‘Cultural Loyalty Bill’ proposed by Culture Minister Miri Regev, outside the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Regev has made numerous threats to cut state funding for cultural productions and organizations that she deems to be disloyal to the state since assuming her role as culture minister following the 2015 elections.

Two years ago, she walked out of the Ophir awards — Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars — when a poem by late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was read, because his work contains objections to the existence of a Jewish state.

She also panned last year’s critically acclaimed film “Foxtrot” as a defamation of Israel. The story of parents grieving the loss of their son is largely allegorical, but Regev insisted the film — which includes a scene of IDF soldiers committing a war crime — amounted to “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative.” After its release, Regev asked the Israeli film funds to provide detailed information about the approval process for movies, in an attempt to clamp down on state funding for movies critical of Israeli government policies.

Earlier this month, Regev asked the Finance Ministry to examine the financing of the Haifa International Film Festival, due to the screening of “subversive” films. The Walla news site reported that the two filmsto attract the minister’s ire were “Out,” which tells the story of a former IDF soldier who joins a right-wing organization that tries to damage the reputation of human rights activists, and “Acre Dreams” which depicts a love affair between a Jew and an Arab at the time of the British Mandate.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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