Netanyahu corruption drama casts a shadow of uncertainty on a busy Knesset

If – and it’s a big if – there’s an election soon, the coalition will want to have at least some recent accomplishments to bring to the voters, or at least to show they really tried.

By
February 25, 2018 10:46
Netanyahu corruption drama casts a shadow of uncertainty on a busy Knesset

COALITION CHAIRMAN David Amsalem shouts during a stormy session of the Knesset Interior Committee on Tuesday about law enforcement investigations into corruption cases, with Police Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich (right). (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post). (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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The breakneck speed at which the news cycle moved this week – with one new scandal following another and two close confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spending night after night in jail – distracted many at the Knesset from their own busy agendas.

But while MKs were nervously wondering if their days are numbered, they had too much legislative work to do to devote much attention to the prospect of facing a primary campaign they may or may not have to launch in the coming months.

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After all, there are three weeks left to the Knesset winter session and a long list of things politicians have promised the public that they’d accomplish before the Passover recess.

If – and it’s a big if – there’s an election soon, the coalition will want to have at least some recent accomplishments to bring to the voters, or at least to show they really tried. They may be distracted by all the developments in the Netanyahu-related corruption allegations, but as the Mishna says, “You are not required to complete task, but you’re not free to desist from it.”
Residents of Tel Aviv react to Netanyahu police recommendations, February 14, 2018 (Reuters).

Here are some of the things you can expect the Knesset to at least try to get done in the next few weeks:

The 2019 budget. Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon planned at the beginning of the winter session to pass next year’s budget early, building on the 2017-2018 budget plan, and removing at least one major stumbling block to the coalition surviving until its November 2019 expiration date.

The long list of scandals does not seem to have put even a dent in Kahlon’s determination on this front.



“We’re going to keep Bibi disciplined,” a Kulanu source said Thursday. “We’re going to pass this budget.”

Budgets are usually among the toughest bills to get passed, but this time around, all the ministers closed their deals before it even went to a cabinet vote. Knesset committees are expected to spend long hours, starting next week, on the budget’s thousands of articles, and, at least at the moment, coalition partners don’t plan to pounce on Netanyahu while he’s weak to try to get more funding for their pet causes.

• Haredi IDF conscription – or exemption. This is a big, big problem for the coalition. In September, the Supreme Court gave the government one year to pass a new law relating to Haredi conscription, saying that the current one, which made it very easy for most ultra-Orthodox men not to serve in the military, is discriminatory. It’s unclear what the coalition is going to come up with that Shas and United Torah Judaism can live with.

In recent weeks, the Haredi press has been enthusiastically reporting on a proposed Basic Law that would call Torah study a core value of Israel, equal to serving in the IDF, which would then allow 18-year-old yeshiva students to study full-time without it being considered shirking national duties. But Yisrael Beytenu has been standing watch against any perceived religious coercion, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is not happy with the idea.

• Combating Palestinian pay-for-slay. This hasn’t been such a big story in the Hebrew media, perhaps because there is a near consensus about it, but its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is expected to bring to a first reading next week a bill by Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern that would deduct the amount of money the Palestinian Authority pays terrorists and their families from the tax and tariffs Israel collects for the PA. Last year alone, the PA paid terrorists $347 million.

There were some disputes about language that would allow the security cabinet to not deduct the funds, but once those are solved, the bill will likely have the support of all but the Joint List, which could allow it to become law before the Knesset goes to recess.

• Jewish nation-state bill. The coalition has promised repeatedly to get Likud MK Avi Dichter’s bill, which has been on and off the agenda since 2011, to a first reading by the end of the winter session.

Earlier this week, it looked like it was going to happen.

Likud MK Amir Ohana, chairman of the special committee for the bill, released a draft for a first reading, which kept the core concepts of the bill, to give Israel’s Jewishness legal standing, but omitted controversial language about the courts considering Jewish law, protected the de facto status of the Arabic language, and bolstered the Israel-Diaspora connection.

However, the committee vote to authorize the bill and send it to a plenum vote was canceled due to disagreements in the coalition about Ohana’s latest draft, and now it seems unclear whether the promises regarding it will be fulfilled.

• Amending child custody law. Some of the most emotional and dirty fights in the 20th Knesset have been over this bill. Currently, if a couple is getting divorced and has kids under age six, the mother automatically receives custody. For years, there’s been a near consensus that this needs to change, but the question is how and how much.

On the one side, we have Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, Committee for the Rights of Children chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu) and the fiercest fighter of all, Likud MK Yoav Kisch, who think the “early childhood presumption” should be canceled outright.

Then there’s Bayit Yehudi MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu and Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli, representing the view that the age of automatic custody can be reduced, but not by much.

The bill was authorized for a first reading with articles that contradict one another, which may not even be legal, and its chances to move forward in the short term seem slim.

• Annexation/sovereignty. The Right calls it sovereignty or applying Israeli law, the Left calls it annexation, and whatever language you choose, the idea of changing the status of Israel’s presence in the West Bank has been a topic of political conversation for months.

Starting with the Likud central committee calling for Israeli law to be applied to settlements, and continuing with a Knesset Land of Israel Caucus bill on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s agenda, the sovereignty/ annexation push is here, and probably won’t go away anytime soon.

The question is how Netanyahu will respond. The prime minister recently said he’s been talking to the Americans about the idea, but the White House distanced itself from the statement.

Some say Netanyahu may make a move in that direction to please his base so that they don’t abandon him in his time of need. Others point to the precedents of former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, who moved to make greater concessions when under investigation for corruption. “The depth of the uprooting is like the depth of the investigation,” which rhymes in Hebrew, is a known phrase in settler circles.

The other option is Netanyahu will do nothing at all. US President Donald Trump is preparing his proposal for “the ultimate deal,” so the prime minister has an excuse for biding his time.

And while the prime minister works out his own problems, the Knesset will still have plenty to do in the coming weeks.

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