The most talked about Knesset stories of 2016

What were the most talked-about stories in the Knesset this year? And why will next year probably be a boring one for the prime minister?

Israeli Knesset (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Israeli Knesset
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
David Bitan’s foot-in-mouth syndrome
David Bitan (Likud) became coalition chairman in May, and it didn’t take long for him to start stirring up controversy.
In addition to whipping up votes, coalition chairmen are often viewed as the prime minister’s mouthpiece, but after this one turned out to have a foot in it, people are wondering how true that is this time.
Some of Bitan’s gems, many of which were uttered at Shabbat Tarbut Saturday cultural events, include saying that former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was not a political murder, that the press is too free, and that he would like it if fewer Israeli Arabs voted.
There was plenty of outrage on the Left, and more forgiving interpretations on the Right – Bitan usually explained himself more clearly after realizing how his statements were understood – but all seemed to agree that eloquence was not Bitan’s strong suit.
Likud backbencher Oren Hazan gets a mention here too, because he continued to appall and to some extent amuse Knesset observers throughout the year with his extremely rude manners. In an interview for The Jerusalem Post in March, he asked readers to help him find a wife. He also gets credit for predicting the victory of Donald Trump, whom Hazan calls a role model.
NGO Law passes
After years of debate and various drafts, the Knesset passed a bill targeting foreign government funding of NGOs in July. Any nonprofit that gets more than half of its money from a foreign political entity now has to write that fact in any publication or letter to government officials, and a list of the NGOs will be posted on the Non-Profit Registrar’s website.
The final version’s teeth were not as sharp as some of the past proposals – such as to tax all donations from foreign governments – but it remained controversial, especially after the Post uncovered documents proving what the bill’s opponents had been saying all along: The vast majority of organizations falling under its purview – 25 of 27 listed by the Justice Ministry – are left-wing.
The law’s supporters, foremost of whom was Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, argued that foreign governments were using their money to try to undermine the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government, and the new situation would make Israeli citizens aware of the motives behind the information or services they were getting from the NGOs.
Impeachment comes to Israel
Another law that passed in July after months of intense debate and made headlines again in recent weeks is the MK Impeachment Law. For the first time, the Knesset is able to vote to eject one of its own. Previously, the only way a lawmaker’s term could end before he or she was voted out was if the MK resigned, or if he or she was convicted of a crime with moral turpitude.
Now, there’s a process by which 90 of the MK’s colleagues can vote him or her out of office on grounds of incitement to violence or racism, and support for armed conflict against Israel, which are among the reasons cited in the Basic Law: Knesset for banning a party or person from running.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally pushed for the bill after MKs from Balad, one of the four parties making up the Joint List, met with the parents of 10 Palestinian terrorists whose bodies were being held by the police because they refused to hold low-key funerals without parades glorifying their sons. The Balad MKs stood in a moment of silence for the “shaheeds” (martyrs), and the Balad Facebook page referred to the father of a terrorist who killed three Israelis as the father of a “martyr.”
Now, the law may be used for the first time to impeach a Balad MK, Bassel Ghattas, whom the authorities caught on tape smuggling documents, cell phones and related equipment to two prisoners serving time on terrorist offenses.
Settlement bill and Amona’s near-evacuation
The Amona outpost has been on right-wing politicians’ minds for much of 2016, and work behind the scenes to prevent its evacuation began early in the year, though it only went public around mid-year and hit a fever pitch in early winter.
The story is long and complicated, but in a nutshell: The High Court ruled in 2014 that Amona had to be evacuated and moved within two years. In summer 2016, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi) proposed legislation meant to retroactively legalize Amona and nearly 4,000 other homes in Judea and Samaria that the courts deemed were built on private Palestinian land. Bayit Yehudi’s leadership was not enthusiastic about the bill at first, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked worked for months on finding somewhere to legally relocate Amona’s residents, but the residents would not agree to be moved. In September, 25 of the Likud’s 30 MKs signed a letter calling for the bill to be passed, and a political race between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi over who is more supportive of settlements was launched.
Since then, Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett have spent many hours negotiating with each other and with Amona residents about this issue.
At the end of 2016, the final settlement bill no longer applies to Amona and a few additional places, but still has the potential to save thousands of other homes throughout Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu has asked to put it on hold until after US President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, but since Bennett has enthusiastically adopted the bill and put a lot of political credit on the line for it, the legislation could very well pass by the end of January.
As for Amona, its planned December 25 evacuation was postponed by 45 days, and the residents agreed to be moved to an adjacent plot of land along with compensation for each home moved.
Netanyahu consolidates his power
Two events in 2016 brought with them a near-guarantee that 2017 will be a boring political year, and Netanyahu will likely remain prime minster well into 2018 with a stable coalition.
The first, Yisrael Beytenu joining the coalition, was a political sensation, and the other, the two-year budget passing, was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
From the beginning of the year, there was buzz about negotiations between Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog towards Zionist Union joining the coalition. Around Passover time the talks became more real, and in May, the leaders looked very close to concluding with Herzog taking over the Foreign Ministry. Then, like Lucy pulling the football away from a hapless Charlie Brown as he ran to kick it, Netanyahu took back the offer when Herzog was just about ready to take it. An easier coalition partner presented itself to Netanyahu in the form of Yisrael Beytenu, and now we have Avigdor Liberman as defense minister.
At the time, there was an uproar in the local and international media, claiming that this would be the most right-wing government ever. Anyone whose knowledge of history goes back more than 15 years or so knows that couldn’t possibly be true, especially by the outraged parties’ standard of how the government views the Palestinian issue. In 1991, Israel had a government that fell apart because prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was willing to attend a conference in Madrid at which Palestinians were present. Accepting the idea of a Palestinian state became relatively mainstream only in the early 1990s – now Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu and Netanyahu all at least say they’re for a two-state solution.
Still, without Yisrael Beytenu’s presence in the coalition, it would have been much more difficult to pass the NGO or impeachment laws, and the settlement bill would have been dead in the water. Expanding the coalition from 61 to 66 has made life significantly easier for Netanyahu and everyone else in the Knesset. Before that, every bill was a potential target for an opposition filibuster, and late-night votes were a nearly weekly occurrence.
Yisrael Beytenu entering the coalition significantly stabilized the coalition and brought the Knesset back to normal – or what passes for normal there.
In fact, the coalition seemed so stable that the opposition may have fallen asleep on the job. The 2017-2018 state budget passed easily and with what Knesset veterans say is unprecedented speed. Any budget gives the coalition a little breathing space, because the threat of an election automatically being called if the budget bill doesn’t pass has been lifted, but a two-year budget is double the coalition stability.
Between Liberman swooping in to expand the coalition and a two-year budget passing, an election is highly unlikely before the end of 2018, and maybe even the start of 2019.