Wartime Knesset pushes municipal elections to January 30, instead of next week

Knesset also advances bills to compensate families of those missing or abducted, and to streamline construction of at-home shelters

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

Lawmakers attend a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
File: Lawmakers attend a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israel’s municipal elections will be pushed to January 30, 2024, instead of being held on October 31 as planned, after the Knesset finalized wartime legislation to give voters and municipalities a three-month campaign pause.

The bill passed into law with 17 votes in its third and final reading, with zero against.

The government can order a further delay to February 27, 2024, on recommendation of the Knesset’s Interior Committee and pending Knesset approval. Country-wide municipal elections are held every five years.

Explanatory notes accompanying the law quote a previous High Court of Justice ruling, which says: “The existence of a state of emergency, in which a significant part of the nation is drafted into the army and the other part of the home front is threatened by enemy attacks, is liable to make it difficult to hold a democratic election process that will achieve its main goals.”

The move is one of a host of emergency measures that the Knesset is prioritizing during Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas, triggered by the terror group’s crippling October 7 attack on southern communities, in which over 1,400 were killed in Israel and at least 222 were abducted to the Gaza Strip.

As part of a deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and emergency government partner Benny Gantz of National Unity, only legislation critical for the war, or approved by both parties, can be advanced by the Knesset until hostilities end.

Illustrative. Yossi Havilio hands out flyers of then-Jerusalem mayoral candidate Ofer Berkovich, on the morning of the second round of the Municipal Elections in Jerusalem, November 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, in coordination with both coalition whip Likud MK Ofir Katz and opposition coordinator MK Merav Ben Ari (Yesh Atid), announced a decision to use parliamentary tools for “wartime issues only,” a radical departure from the use of questionnaires, legislative agenda items, and public debates to politically grandstand and filibuster — Knesset staples in recent years.

With parliament streamlined for timely wartime responses, the Knesset on Monday also advanced in a preliminary reading a bill to match benefits given to families of people missing or kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 to those given to families of fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

Parliament also cleared in its first reading a bill to ease bureaucratic procedures for approvals to add safe rooms to apartments or shared shelters to apartment buildings. According to the proposal, approval for the latter will be given when 60 percent of apartment owners agree to the construction.

The Knesset also finalized the government’s recommendation to shutter the Public Diplomacy Ministry and transfer its funds to rehabilitating southern communities shattered by Hamas.

Also on Monday, Ohana and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced the Defense Ministry’s intention to work toward recognizing same-sex partners of fallen soldiers as bereaved family members.

The issue has been prominent in Israeli media in recent days, after a counterterror commander was killed and his fiancé, also a male reserve officer, said the military did not treat him as a family member.

Reserve Captain Sagi Golan (left) and his betrothed, Omer Ohana. (Screenshot)

The Knesset’s committees are also focusing their effort on wartime response, and the Economic Committee continued on Monday to be the scene of a pitched battle between frustrated citizens and parliamentarians.

Frustration over Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s wartime economic plan boiled over into shouting, as representatives for independent contractors and for towns outside the government’s compensation boundaries accused officials of failing to fulfill their responsibilities.

In particular, citizens and businesses in the city of Ashkelon, which, during the current conflict, continues to hold the title of most rocketed city in Israel, are just outside the seven-kilometer vector line from the Gaza border within which businesses and citizens are entitled to enhanced government support.

A representative from the Finance Ministry’s budget division said that part of the reason the current plan is not offering the breadth of assistance it did during the coronavirus pandemic, such as helping workers temporarily furloughed, was that “most businesses can keep working.”

Finance Minister and Head of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, October 23, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Smotrich responded to criticism of the government’s economic actions during the war, saying that his plan was a rapid response geared at keeping the economy going.

“The goal is the continuity of the Israeli economy. We want the economy to function as much as possible, even during the war,” the finance minister said, addressing the media ahead of his Religious Zionism party’s faction meeting.

Alluding to public frustration over NIS 14.7 billion ($3.6 billion) in discretionary funds that had been allocated to political interests, Smotrich reiterated that Israel’s 2023-2024 state budget is being reevaluated to support the war effort.

“All of the priorities in the budget are changing in light of the war,” he said.

In addition to Monday’s Economic Committee hearings, the government has faced widespread criticism that it has been too slow to respond, as the economy shows signs of strain due to the war, and that it has left many citizens without support.

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