Challenges ahead for the 21st Knesset - analysis

In late 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the blanket exemption for full-time yeshiva students from military service and gave the government a year to pass a new law.

May 2, 2019 00:46
4 minute read.
President Reuven Rivlin attends the inauguration of the 21st Knesset on Tuesday, April 30, 2019

President Reuven Rivlin attends the inauguration of the 21st Knesset on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Every Knesset has its big, flagship bills that are debated and voted on over the years. Some become apparent during elections, others pop up later. The 21st Knesset, sworn in this week, is no different.

Religion and state is the biggest sticking point in the current coalition talks, with Yisrael Beytenu standing athwart demands from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), with support in most cases from the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP). Among those issues are public construction work on Saturdays and conversion policy under the auspices of the government-backed Chief Rabbinate.

But the big one is haredi enlistment in the IDF. It’s one of the things that brought down the last government – or at least, it was big enough to be used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an excuse to call an early election. Netanyahu discussed the matter in a meeting with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday.

In late 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the blanket exemption for full-time yeshiva students from military service and gave the government a year to pass a new law – and then allowed for an extension.

Liberman, who was defense minister at the time, appointed a professional committee in his ministry to write a bill. The outcome was legislation stipulating annual enlistment targets, increasing yearly for a decade, and financial sanctions in the form of reducing the budget for haredi yeshivas if targets are not met. The bill subsequently passed a first reading in the Knesset, with support from the opposition. Shas and UTJ called the bill “disastrous.”

Now, Liberman demands that the bill continue down the legislative pipeline without any changes – “not even a comma,” he has said. The haredi parties are adamant in their opposition to the proposal as it stands. Yisrael Beytenu has five seats, and the haredim – with help from URP – have 22. It’s unclear at this point if the coalition parties that would vote in favor of the bill could rely on help from the opposition, which may well be in a fighting mood right after an election.

Then, there are the matters of the judiciary and the rule of law. More bills were proposed relating to the topic than any other in the previous Knesset – and this one is not expected to be any different.

With a possible indictment dangling over Netanyahu’s head, several MKs have come up with legislative initiatives that could save him from having his day in court. Netanyahu, of course, says he’s not involved, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying.

For example, there is the so-called French Law, exempting Netanyahu from criminal proceedings while he’s still in office, or a proposal by URP MK Bezalel Smotrich – who would like to be appointed justice minister – for all MKs and ministers to have such immunity.
Blue and White, the largest opposition party, is working toward the opposite aim, proposing to require that a prime minister, regular minister or deputy minister resign if he or she is indicted on criminal charges. Blue and White is also planning on submitting a bill to form a commission of inquiry to investigate the IDF’s purchase of submarines from Germany, the topic of a recent criminal investigation in which Netanyahu was not a person of interest – but Blue and White argues that he should be.

Whether Smotrich or the other likely contender – Likud MK Yariv Levin – becomes justice minister, there will likely be a spate of bills trying to curb judicial activism or reverse its effects. One is the “override clause,” which would allow the Knesset to re-pass laws struck down by the Supreme Court. Another would be limiting the attorney-general’s authority or splitting his job into two; the state comptroller is also in their sights.

Then, there are diplomatic matters. With a peace plan from US President Donald Trump on the way, the future of some Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria could come into question, but many in the Likud, URP and other factions want to combat that.
In coalition talks, URP is demanding settlement annexation, plus the cancellation of the 2005 Disengagement Law, in order to allow Israelis to return to northern Samaria and for that territory to be included in the annexation.

New Likud MK Michal Shir also proposed a bill, on her first day as a lawmaker, to annex Jewish settlements – and the idea has support from much of her party.

But these bills were all blocked in the last Knesset due to international sensitivities, and it’s hard to see Netanyahu behaving differently now.

With all of these big issues on the agenda before the government has even been formed, the next Knesset has plenty of challenges ahead to keep its 120 members busy.

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