Government in panic as majority for mini-markets bill uncertain

Religious disagreement? Or race war?

Shas party leader Arye Deri (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Shas party leader Arye Deri
The 'mini-markets' bill passed in the Knesset at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning after a frenzied vote-counting ahead of the scheduled first reading on Monday, which was expected to pass after the coalition reached a majority after 11 p.m.
The bill in question is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement with Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties following a coalition crisis over public violations of the Sabbath. If it passes, it will require stores to receive permission from the Interior Minister to remain open on Saturdays, which Deri is not expected to give. Tel Aviv is exempt, because the Supreme Court ruled that the city could allow mini-markets to stay open.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman stood firm in his position opposing the Haredi-sponsored “mini-markets bill,” hours before it was expected to go to a final vote. And two Likud MKs – Sharren Haskel and Yehudah Glick – as well as Kulanu’s Tali Ploskov, joined the refusal.
With coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) distracted by the ongoing investigation into corruption allegations against him, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin played a large part in trying to negotiate and pressure both coalition MKs to vote for the bill and opposition MKs to skip the vote in order to tip the scales to the coalition’s advantage.
Netanyahu went straight to the Knesset from his Brussels return flight, which had been delayed several hours due to inclement weather, summoning lawmakers to his office as part of the vote-gathering effort.
At first, opposition MKs held to their no-offsetting pledge.
The coalition went after the Joint List as the weak link; the Arab faction often offsets MKs and tends to avoid votes on Jewish religion and state issues. However, they would not budge this time from their opposition to the bill.
Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi explained that the faction is retaliating against Haredi parties for voting in favor of the “muezzin bill,” that would limit the times and the volume at which the Muslim call to prayer can be played on public loudspeakers. The proposal passed a preliminary reading in July.
MK Yisrael Eichler of United Torah Judaism pointed out that he didn’t vote for the muezzin bill, so one Joint List MK should skip this vote – but the idea landed on deaf ears.
Even Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, who was set to undergo a medical procedure under full anesthesia Monday night, would have to come to the Knesset in Tuesday’s early hours so his party’s bill would pass. It is highly unusual for lawmakers missing a vote for medical reasons to be unable to find someone on the other political side to offset them by correspondingly not voting. Eventually, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon agreed to skip the vote.
MK Orly Levy-Abecasis, who is in her own faction, left the Knesset, tipping the scales in the coalition’s favor.
Earlier Monday, at the opening of a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting, Liberman said he’s not looking for a coalition crisis and does not want an election, but “whoever brings a bill like this to a vote will be held responsible if a right-wing government falls apart.”
Liberman referred to an interview with Deri on Channel 20 from over a week ago, in which the Interior Minister responded to Yisrael Beytenu’s opposition to the bill by rhetorically asking: “Did you come [to Israel] in order to buy pork sausages on Shabbat?”
Many Yisrael Beytenu voters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and Liberman interpreted the comment as a slight against them.
“This is totally racist. I expect a clear public apology from [Deri] on this subject. I also hope, with God’s help, that the ‘mini-markets bill’ will not pass,” Liberman said.
Liberman said of the bill: “I am for Jewish tradition, I am for Jewish values and I strongly oppose religious coercion. Like most Israelis, I make kiddush on Friday night, and on Saturday morning get into the car.”
The Yisrael Beytenu leader pointed out that stores all over the country are open on the Sabbath, saying that after he plays tennis on Saturday mornings, he often buys cheese and fresh bread in Jerusalem.
“It was like this for decades, and no one had a problem with it,” he added.
Liberman also argued that the bill violates the stipulation in the coalition agreement that any change in the status quo on religion and state requires a consensus.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, however, saw things differently, saying the bill “preserves the status quo,” and therefore Liberman is the one violating the coalition agreement.
“[Liberman] made threats about the bill, so now he’s stuck,” Bennett said. “As a coalition, we need to avoid doing things that bother the other partners too much. We have to learn to accept things we don’t like – look at the big picture. Israel is moving in the right direction.”
Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay said the “mini-markets bill” is “hurting the public... instead of promoting public transportation on Shabbat, which most of the public wants. Most of the public also wants to shop on Shabbat. You are making decisions for a minority, not the majority,” Gabbay said.
Shas did not respond to requests for a comment from Deri.
Deri’s pork comment is not the first time Shas has been faced with accusations of discrimination against immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Ahead of the 2013 election, the party produced an ad that came to be known as “star-conversion,” in which a woman with a stereotypically Slavic appearance is under a chuppah (wedding canopy) with an Israeli man. She dials “star-conversion,” and gets a fax that tells her he’s Jewish.