Democratic politics is all about factionalism and dissent. The act of creating a political party entails delineating, articulating, and making distinctions. A political party’s agenda competes against other agendas for public support. Integral to the political process is distinguishing among vying programs of action via free and open debate.
Unfortunately, our government coalition has taken a step this week which effectively stifles free debate and undermines the political process. It has decided to ram through the Knesset three exceedingly important and controversial bills in just three days.
In protest against such parliamentary steamrolling, opposition parties on Sunday announced they would boycott the debates and the vote on the three bills.
Starting Monday morning, the government launched an exhausting and hasty marathon of pro forma discussions, followed by votes on three pieces of legislation: a bill designed to draft haredi men enrolled in yeshivot; a bill that would raise the Knesset entrance threshold for the smallest political parties; and a bill that would require a national referendum to okay territorial compromises as part of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
None of these bills is exceedingly time sensitive.
The most controversial clauses in the haredi conscription bill would not be implemented for more than three years. The bill on the election threshold would not be relevant until the next elections, scheduled for three years from now. And it hardly seems likely that an agreed upon Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is in the offing.
So what is the rush? Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Coalition chairman Yariv Levin say that all three bills have already been discussed extensively and that there is nothing that has not already been said.
But it seems there is another reason for the government’s haste in pushing through the three bills before the end of the Knesset winter session on March 23. The parties making up the coalition are split on support for the three bills.
Members of the more zealously religious Tekuma faction in Bayit Yehudi and some other MKs in the party are sympathetic to the haredim and therefore oppose the use of criminal sanctions against yeshiva students who refuse to serve in the IDF. Tekuma, which is considering running on a separate list in the next elections, also opposes the bill to raise the threshold for getting into the Knesset.
Meanwhile, members of Yesh Atid and Hatnua oppose the referendum bill, designed to put another obstacle in the way of a government asked to vote on a territorial compromise with the Palestinians in a peace deal. And Yisrael Beitenu MKs are disgruntled that the draft law does not obligate Arab Israelis to perform national service.
To overcome these points of dissent, the heads of all the parties making up the coalition have been asked to sign a document committing their MKs to vote in favor of all three bills as a single package deal. Coalition heads fear that if the votes are delayed until after the Knesset break is over, the shaky arrangement that was cobbled together might fall apart and one or more of the bills will not pass.
There is nothing unlawful about this sort of parliamentary wheeling and dealing. The coalition is permitted to speed up the legislation process, particularly ahead of a looming deadline like the one facing the Knesset, in order to pass a bill. Coalition parties regularly strike quid pro quo deals, where one party agrees to support the legislation of another party on condition that this support is reciprocated.
But the conflation of both of these tactics is a bit much, particularly when the bills up for discussion are so controversial and when their passage is far from time sensitive.
The opposition parties’ only weapon is the strength of their arguments. These arguments must be allowed to be voiced. We cannot condone the stifling of dissent and the blocking of a free and open debate for the sake of political expedience.