By Dubi Kanengisser
The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is going through a rare constitutional moment. Three highly contentious bills are scheduled to be brought before it this week, each central to the agenda of at least one of the three key coalition members, but grates against others. In a controversial move, the heads of the coalition parties were required to sign a confidential agreement that commits them and all members of their caucus to support all three bills. The letter itself, of course, is widely seen as indicative of the mutual distrust between the leaders of the coalition. That it was leaked further exacerbates this feeling.
The three bills include a change to the long standing policy exempting ultra-orthodox Jews from the draft, central to political newcomer’s Yesh Atid’s platform of “equal share of the burden”; a bill to add a constitutional requirement that any withdrawal from lands controlled by Israel is first ratified by a referendum (this will be the sole scenario where a referendum will be required, or indeed possible, in the Israeli system) – which is pushed by the National Religious party Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”), as well as the strong right-wing of the Likud party; and a constitutional amendment to “strengthen governability” which encompasses a slew of amendments, variously promoted by PM Netanyahu, Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Yesh Atid, to weaken the Knesset and strengthen the executive, and especially the prime minister within his own government, but which mostly draws fire for its proposal to raise the electoral threshold to 3.25%, a number that primarily threatens the parties representing the Arab minority in Israel and is widely seen as conceived specifically to reduce their representation in the legislature, but it also poses a formidable barrier before potential splinter groups, thus weakening internal opposition groups in both the Jewish Home and Likud. The threshold clause, incidentally, is actually opposed by PM Netanyahu himself. Lieberman was pushing for an even higher threshold.
Logrolling is expected in a coalition, of course. It is assumed that there will be areas where the parties disagree, and will reach a compromise so that each party agrees to some policies it doesn’t like in return for support of its own babies. But there was something about the bluntness and inelegance of this new barrage of bills that has riled up Israel’s fragmented opposition and rallied it to a rare display of resolve. The opposition, powerless to actually stop the bills so long as the coalition adheres to its discipline, decided to boycott the debate and the vote altogether, hoping, perhaps, to draw enough empathy from at least some Members of Knesset in the coalition, to allow it to stop some of the legislation (some of the constitutional amendments require an absolute majority), or, at the very least, to win a public opinion battle and delegitimize the laws once passed.
This is, after all, not a classic case of logrolling – it is a grudging acceptance of what some members of the coalition are openly declaring as bad bills, which they will nonetheless support to get their own way with their own bills. The lack of cohesiveness in the coalition is preventing them from even putting on a show that the three bills make up a real compromise. Instead, it is a staking of (policy) territories, a separation of the political and social field into patronages which exacerbates what is already seen as a fragmentation and “tribalization” of Israeli society. It is issue ownership gone rampant.
The chair of the coalition was caught between a rock and a hard place. He could have separated the three bills, put them up for votes seemingly without any connecting lines between them. But the he would have risked insubordination and the logrolling would break down. The signed agreement, after all, does not stipulate any sanctions on a party that fails to make good on its promise. Pushing the bills together makes the mutual oversight more pronounced in the absence of real sanctions. But grouping the three bills draws attention to this ramshackle coalition. Netanyahu was able to pull through four years of an equally incohesive government in his previous term mainly by not doing much of anything – do not rock the boat was the motto of Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister. Now, perhaps emboldened by his success, he is doubling down on the governance bill, and will not let his pesky newbie coalition members stop him.
But in all this logrolling, the coalition has never thought of reaching out across the aisle and offering anything to the opposition. Far from it: despite its assured majority, the coalition has done everything in its power to stifle the opposition, and is only now trying to backtrack from the procedural changes it attempted to enforce to limit the opposition further during these votes. It is a sign not only of Netanyahu’s contempt to the leaders of the opposition parties (which is rivaled only by his contempt to his fellow coalition leaders), but also of his certainly of his new-found invincibility. He does not offer an olive branch to the opposition because he doesn’t need to, and civility be damned.
The opposition, if it maintains its stand in boycotting the votes, is calling the prime minister’s bluff and asserting that which was once asserted by Menachem Begin, long the head of the opposition under Mapai’s nearly three-decade rule of Israel: if you give up on the opposition’s voice, you have given up on democracy itself.