Israel’s coalition government was rocked by parliamentary drama last night as two of its Knesset members voted to defeat the routine renewal of 55-year-old legislation.
- On Monday night, two coalition MKs – Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi and Ra’am’s Mazen Ghanaim – voted against a piece of legislation to renew the application of Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israelis living in the West Bank, helping to defeat the bill.
- The final tally in the vote was 52 for and 58 against, with 10 abstentions, including three MKs from the government-supporting Arab-majority Ra’am party.
- The vote itself followed a raucous debate lasting almost 5 hours, in which housing minister Ze’ev Elkin accused the opposition of betraying its values, whilst met with heckling of “It’s over!” from opposition lawmakers.
- Ahead of the debate, Israeli Labor leader and Transport Minister Merav Michaeli had warned colleagues that “Anyone who votes against the law is taking part in Netanyahu’s approach”, which places the former prime minister’s interests above those of the country.
- Leader of Meretz and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz was similarly critical of colleagues who voted against the bill, calling on them to resign their seats in the Knesset if they could not support the government.
- The opposition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, urged prime minister Naftali Bennett to resign following the defeat.
- Foreign minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party forms the largest proportion of seats in the coalition government, shrugged off the defeat and promised to “win the next round”.
- Justice minister Gideon Sa’ar, who has overseen the legislation, had previously said that the vote represented a crucial test of the government’s viability.
- The bill’s defeat represents a blow to its chances of its renewal before the deadline on 30 June.
- The governing coalition government – led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid – is made up of eight parties, stretching from the left, centre and right, as well as being supported by an Arab-majority party.
- The coalition, which formed last summer in an effort to oust longstanding prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently has only 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, meaning every lawmaker counts.
- Within the coalition, Labor leader Merav Michaeli has served as transport minister, while Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz has worked as health minister.
- Recent months have been increased dissatisfaction within the coalition, raising the prospect of new elections or even the establishment of an alternative, right-wing government led by Netanyahu.
The letter of the law
The bill itself is a routine measure extending Israeli criminal law and certain key civil laws – such as income tax and health insurance – to Israelis living in the West Bank. The legislation, originally enacted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, remains an “emergency measure” that must be renewed every five years. It was last renewed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2017. The contents of the bill faced particular opposition from Arab lawmakers in the coalition government, including Ra’am’s four members – three of whom abstained – and Meretz’s Rinawie Zoabi. Should the legislation not be passed by the 30 June deadline, Sa’ar warned, the functioning of basic legal and civil services in the West Bank – including the school year, drivers’ licences and ID numbers – would be threatened.
- Despite supporting the contents of the legislation, and despite the longstanding precedent of its renewal since 1967, the right-wing opposition parties led by Netanyahu voted against the bill.
- This move forms part of the opposition’s strategy to do everything in its power to demonstrate the coalition’s inability to govern and to bring about its demise.
- Netanyahu’s Likud party released a short statement following the vote: “Bennett – go home. It’s over. It’s time to return Israel to the right”.
- Likud MK Yoav Kisch made his party’s opportunistic approach clear: “We’ll immediately pass [the bill] when we come back [to power]. We can’t leave 500,000 people without law and without order”.
- Meanwhile, Bennett’s Yamina party accused opposition members of “burning the country” for Netanyahu’s needs while pledging to push through the legislation. Netanyahu’s grip on the leadership of Likud has remained firm since his removal from office last year, despite an ongoing corruption trial.
In an indication of the coalition’s trademark creative approach, defence minister Benny Gantz has made clear that he had instructed the security establishment to investigate possible solutions to ensure legal continuity should the legislation fail to be renewed. Potential measures include having military commanders issue ordinances to apply relevant parts of Israeli criminal and civil law where necessary, or even to issue military orders extending social security to Israelis in the West Bank – the latter of which Gantz admitted as “absurd”.
What happens next
Monday’s vote represented the renewal bill’s first reading, and the bill is expected to return to the Knesset floor as early as next week. However, the likelihood of its being passed without some changes of posture – either within the government or from the opposition – appears unlikely.