The big challenges facing Israeli legislators this season

Haredi conscription, Netanyahu’s investigations, the Jewish nation-state bill, foreign-funded NGOs and the state budget are only some of the topics on the Knesset's already crowded agenda.

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October 22, 2017 14:40
The big challenges facing Israeli legislators this season

The Knesset in session: The legislature is going to be working overtime.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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Anyone living in Israel knows what “aharei hahagim” (literally, “after the holidays”) means: It’s time to stop procrastinating and get back to work, for real.

The Knesset’s “after the holidays” is a week after the rest of the country’s, with the winter session beginning on Monday, and the legislature is going to be working overtime.

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On Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office gave us a hint of the tempestuous months ahead, with a long list of announcements of things the coalition and the cabinet agreed to work on, much of which have already sparked controversy.

Here are some of the parliamentary debates that are expected in the coming months: There’s a bevy of coalition bills dealing with the Supreme Court on the agenda, mostly from opponents of judicial activism, who feel that the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature needs to be strengthened.

The catch is that Kulanu has veto power over any bills or government policies dealing with the rule of law. Remember when Bayit Yehudi announced it is drafting a constitution, which would include a chapter delineating checks and balances between the branches of government?

That is unlikely to go anywhere. Neither is the joint Bayit Yehudi-UTJ-Shas initiative to legislate a workaround called the “circumvention paragraph,” allowing the Knesset to re-legislate any law canceled by the Supreme Court. The paragraph is currently part of Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, which allowed Shas to pass a law banning the import of non-Kosher meat from 1994 to 2002.

That doesn’t mean the Right isn’t going to push back against judicial activism.

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There are two bills on the Knesset’s agenda for the coming months that will deal with the Supreme Court head on, each in a specific area.

First, there’s the Jewish Nation-State bill. The proposal to pass a Basic Law, which carries constitutional weight, declaring Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people has been on and off the table since 2011. This year, however, “Basic Law: Israel – The nation-state of the Jewish people” actually made some progress, passing a preliminary reading, after which a committee led by Likud MK Amir Ohana was formed expressly to work on the bill.

The bill’s proponents point out that all of the Basic Laws deal with democratic norms and rights, but that there is no law establishing Israel’s Jewish character, and that having one would protect long-standing Israeli policies such as the Law of Return from being overturned by the Supreme Court, among other arguments.

Those who oppose the bill express concern that having the state be Jewish by law would make non-Jewish citizens second- class. Zionist Union and Yesh Atid have asked that the word “equality” be added to the bill; Likud, Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu say that defeats the purpose of the bill to be a counterweight to the existing laws guaranteeing equality.

This debate, which usually gets heated, will likely come up a lot this winter.

The next bill responding to judicial activism is the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill, which the Supreme Court gave the government until September 2018 to figure out, or all 18-yearold haredim will be required to serve in the IDF. Coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) said he wants this problem solved in the winter session, which ends before Passover, but neither he nor Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the minister responsible for drafting the bill, have any idea what it will look like.

There are major challenges ahead for the coalition. The Knesset will have to pass a law limiting who can be exempted from service and when to satisfy the court’s demands. But there are, of course, political demands as well, and the haredi parties will resist any kind of proposal that is too forceful.

Investigations into alleged corruption by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have captivated the political scene with questions about his political future. There are bills likely to be discussed this winter that could have a direct impact on those issues.

First is a bill by Likud MK David Amsalem that would make it illegal to investigate a sitting prime minister, except on specific charges. The bill is known as the “French Law” because it is based on a constitutional article in France. It wouldn’t apply retroactively – meaning that Netanyahu’s investigations would continue – but it would send a message. And it could prevent Netanyahu from being questioned in Case 3000 over whether bribery was involved in the decision to have the navy buy submarines from Germany, since he is not a person of interest yet, though other cabinet members were probed.

The other element of the no-investigations bill is term limits. At the moment, there are no term limits on prime ministers, so if the “French Law” passes, someone could theoretically stay prime minister for many years while a corruption investigation goes on hold. In order to deal with that issue, the coalition is also considering passing a law limiting the amount of years a prime minister can serve to eight. It doesn’t limit the terms, since there is not a set term length in Israel.

There are questions as to whether that will put limitations on Netanyahu, who has already served for eight consecutive years, 11 in total.

If that’s not enough to keep the Knesset busy, the NGO wars are back, with the coalition fighting foreign government funding of political organizations in Israel. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because the Knesset already passed two laws on the topic in recent years.

The coalition has a lot of different ideas on how to fight this phenomenon, which overwhelmingly occurs on the far-left of the political spectrum. One is to block such funding entirely and allow foreign countries to donate only to totally apolitical bodies such as hospitals. Another is to ban organizations that seek to put IDF soldiers on trial in international courts or call to boycott Israel, including settlement boycotts.

In addition, Bitan plans to promote a parliamentary commission of inquiry on foreign government funding of these NGOs. All of these proposals are likely to face serious legal challenges; in fact, Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon already said the inquiry is not within the Knesset’s authority, though his recommendations are not binding.

All of these controversies could lead one to think that the coalition is in danger of falling apart over fighting on these issues, but the parties are taking a step to strengthen their alliance: passing a budget for 2019. No, not 2018 – that was already done in the joint 2017-2018 budget. The Knesset hopes to pass a budget a year early, a move that would remove one major obstacle that could keep it from staying together until the deadline for the next election, in November 2019.

Clearly, the coalition is not easing itself in to its return to work. “After the holidays” in the Knesset has definitely arrived.

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