When the Knesset’s summer session began in May, a new coalition chairman, MK David Bitan (Likud), came along with it.
The job of coalition chairman, similar to that of the majority whip in other legislatures, sounds simple enough: Be the disciplinarian who ensures fellow coalition MKs are in attendance when they need to be and vote the way the coalition decided is its policy, and lead whatever negotiations are necessary to make that happen.
Politics being politics, the coalition chairman’s job is always easier said than done, and the position is among the most challenging in the Knesset, though its benefits are significant, including greater prominence in the party and the media and a closer working relationship with the prime minister.
Bitan, a freshman MK, replaced now-Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi after a prolonged battle within the Likud for the position, and as a result, feelings in the party were mixed about him. After a year in which Hanegbi often seemed to be asleep on the job and gave the opposition small victories here and there, the new coalition chairman was someone who had earned a reputation while chairman of the Knesset House Committee as a bulldozer – he gets things done but doesn’t mind trampling whatever and whoever gets in his way.
The past few months haven’t done much to change that impression. Bitan has made it clear that he doesn’t have patience for MKs’ tricks, and he’s willing to use the full force of the Knesset rule book to stop troublemakers. At the same time, though, Bitan has shown more magnanimity than his predecessors in the job in letting the opposition pass laws – if they cooperate with him.
With the Knesset’s summer session coming to a close this week, the ways Bitan handled the ups and downs of the last few months, plus his plans for the winter session, which begins on October 31, could be seen as a guide for the beginner coalition chairman.
Controversial bills: Bitan ushered an unusual amount of bills, including some of the year’s most highly contested pieces of legislation, through final votes with relative ease.
“We went through all the problematic bills of the past year,” he recounted on Wednesday in his new, expansive Knesset office. “It was hard, but it’ll give us quiet in the future.”
Whether it was the NGO transparency bill, or a new law that would allow MKs to vote their colleagues out for incitement to racism or terrorism with a three-fourths majority, or allowing newly constructed hotels to include apartments, the opposition let off steam in long committee and plenum meetings, but the coalition’s votes were whipped up as needed, and the laws ended up passing.
The way Bitan managed that, he said, was “having a lot of meetings, where we took care of objections in the coalition and opposition, so we wouldn’t have surprises in the plenum.
“There are always disagreements. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t need a coalition chairman. It’s my job to work them out and make decisions,” he explained.
Unsurprisingly, not every bill was smooth sailing.
On the first week on the job, Bitan told The Jerusalem Post he would not bring a bill up to a vote if he was not certain it would get a majority – meaning, if there were disagreements in the coalition – “so we don’t look foolish,” a pointed reference to his predecessor as coalition chairman, during whose tenure the coalition was embarrassed nearly a dozen times by its proposals being voted down or opposition legislation and motions winning votes.
And Bitan kept his word – for example, in a bill that would cancel automatic custody for divorced mothers of children under age six. Likud MK Yoav Kisch, with the support of Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, sought to have courts decide on a case-by-case basis what is best for the child, but many in the coalition – notably MKs Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi) and Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), as well as Shas and United Torah Judaism – wanted to keep the situation as is. Though the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the proposal, Bitan could not guarantee a majority and proposed a compromise – lower the automatic maternal custody age to 2.5. An angry Kisch didn’t agree, and the bill has yet to go to a vote, with Bitan blocking it.
While Bitan successfully helped the Knesset pass many laws in the second and third reading, some are asking whether the Knesset is over-legislating, and the lament may put a new challenge on the coalition chairman’s agenda.
Since the Knesset was sworn in last March, MKs have proposed over 3,000 bills. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation has discussed nearly 1,500 in the last year, approving 213, rejecting 200 and postponing discussion of another 900.
“It’s insanity,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the committee’s chairwoman, said in a briefing to the Knesset Reporters Association Tuesday. “MKs don’t need to pass so many bills. In my last term, I was considered a hardworking lawmaker, and I only passed three.”
Shaked expressed concern that an abundance of laws creates too much regulation for businesses and makes the average Israeli’s life more complicated. The justice minister plans to call a meeting with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Bitan and opposition representatives to find solutions.
Opposition relations: When it comes to the opposition, Bitan uses the carrot-and-stick method.
The carrot is passing opposition bills. Of the 213 bills the ministers approved, 61 were proposed by the opposition, a move Bitan approves and supports.
“If the opposition initiates a bill and it serves the public and fits in the budget, we’ll push it through. The difference between this coalition and the previous ones is that we look at the content of the bill and not who proposed it. We’re very pluralistic,” Bitan said proudly, adding that opposition bills approved by the coalition usually have to do with social issues.
One example of such a bill is one proposed by Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On to give more benefits to people leaving battered women’s shelters, to help them start their lives and not have to return to their abusers for financial reasons.
However, Bitan is not afraid to use the stick. Last week, when debates on whether the next budget should be for two years turned nasty, Bitan had a punishment ready. Opposition MKs in the Finance Committee, led by Zionist Union’s Stav Shaffir, submitted thousands of objections, filibustering the bill well past midnight. The next morning, Bitan announced a moratorium on cooperation with the opposition: The coalition won’t vote for opposition bills, even if ministers approved them, and Bitan would not negotiate with the coalition. The opposition responded by saying they would snub the coalition, too. At Edelstein’s prodding, the sides reached an agreement, but the opposition gave up on most of the changes it wanted in the budget structure bill.
In general, Bitan does not have much patience for filibustering, and since the Knesset rule book allows it, he has sought time limits for the opposition’s speechifying, first trying to reach a compromise, but if not, enforcing it.
Coalition discipline: The carrot-and-stick method goes for the coalition, too. Awkwardly, most disciplinary problems come from Bitan’s own Likud Party, but that doesn’t stop him from responding. Just this week, Bitan had perennial mischief-maker MK Oren Hazan (Likud) booted from the Knesset State Control Committee, after Hazan said in an interview that he planned to vote in favor of a comptroller inquiry into the government’s conduct during Operation Protective Edge.
“The Likud opposes [the inquiry],” Bitan explained. “A Likud MK can’t vote against the party, which is why we replaced him.
We have democracy in the Likud, but once a decision is made, MKs need to get in line. This issue is too important to take chances.”
Another recent case in which Bitan cracked the whip on a Likud lawmaker was when he pulled a bill by MK Amir Ohana, the party’s first gay legislator, to punish gender-based hate crimes, which the coalition opposed. Bitan said the bill simply didn’t have enough votes, and he was doing what was best for Ohana, to convince more MKs to support it, but Ohana certainly didn’t see it that way.
Another issue Bitan cracked down on is offsetting, the practice by which a coalition member’s absence during a vote is canceled out by an opposition member who is not present either. In his first week on the job, Bitan sent a letter to all MKs detailing new rules for the coalition. All offsets must be authorized by Bitan or the Likud’s manager in the Knesset (a nonelected position currently filled by Aliza Barashi). If ministers skip votes without permission, their ministries’ bills will not go to a vote. As a result, the summer session was marked by less last-minute scrambling for offsets than the last winter session.
What’s next? The Knesset winter session is usually dominated by the budget, which is a constant challenge for the coalition chairman and really for all MKs, who tend to be much busier than in the lazy days of summer.
Aside from that, the debates about public broadcasting that roiled the political scene in the last week are likely to continue, with the deadline for “Kan” – the new broadcasting corporation – to start work fast approaching. Bitan, however, plans to push forward his proposal to cancel Kan’s establishment and stick with the existing Israel Broadcast Association, even though the prime minister does not back it.
“I have an opinion on the matter.
Just because I’m coalition chairman doesn’t mean I’m not an MK who can propose bills,” he said. “[Kan] should be canceled because it doesn’t exist yet, and the reason it was supposed to be established is because we couldn’t make the IBA more efficient; they refused to fire anyone. Today, they’ll agree to anything, as long as they continue to exist; so we can reach the same results and spend less money than what [Kan] would cost us. And we’d save money on pensions for all the IBA workers who would be laid off.”
Major controversy within the coalition is expected over the evacuation of the Amona settlement, which is planned for December. It’s not a legislative matter – the one bill Moalem-Refaeli proposed to try to save the settlement has little support, with the government preferring to move Amona’s residents to a different part of the same hill – but such issues have sparked rebellions in the past, and Bitan is prepared for them.
Another settlement issue that will come to a head in the winter is the Ma’aleh Adumim annexation bill, proposed by Kisch and MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi). Shaked said this week the bill has no chance of passing, because annexation should be a cabinet decision and not a private- member bill. Bitan, however, said the bill has a chance: “We want to annex Ma’aleh Adumim, but we don’t know what international pressures there will be.”
Still, both Shaked and Bitan look ahead to the Knesset’s winter session and expect the coalition to survive intact.
“This coalition is homogeneous and works well,” Shaked said, adding that she thinks it can even last a full term.
According to Bitan, “the members of the coalition want to get along. No one wants an early election, so they don’t stretch the rope too far.”