Parliamentary Affairs: Not-so-new politics

Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi promised something new, but MKs excelled at recycling old antics and proposals in the Knesset's summer session. Still, a record number of female MKs left their mark.

Knesset MKs at plenum 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset MKs at plenum 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘There’s nothing new under the sun,” King Solomon wrote thousands of years ago, and he may as well have been talking about the Knesset. MKs and parties come and go through the legislature, and at the close of the 19th Knesset’s summer session, it seems like their tactics and ideas never change.
Rising stars Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of Bayit Yehudi, took the last election by storm. The Yesh Atid campaign said, “We’ve come to make a change” and promised new politics, while Bayit Yehudi’s slogan was “Something new is beginning” – but neither was able to pull it off on a parliamentary level.
There are 48 new members of the 19th Knesset, and the first haredi-free coalition in a decade, and yet, there wasn’t much going on that was new and original in the summer session that ended this week – except for a generous dose of girl power.
Recycled legislation
Let’s start with the Knesset’s central task: To pass laws.
Other than the budget – which as opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) gleefully pointed out on Monday, looks like it was recycled from when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was finance minister – there were a handful of bills that made waves.
The first, haredi enlistment, has been on the agenda for a year and a half. In early 2012, the Supreme Court canceled the “Tal Law,” which exempted the ultra-Orthodox from service. Since then, politicians have been talking about the issue non-stop.
Kadima joined the previous government, the Plesner Committee was formed, the Plesner Committee was disbanded, Kadima left the government.
An election was called in which several parties presented their haredi enlistment platform, with Yesh Atid especially highlighting theirs.
Enlistment is still the hot topic of the day. There was a new committee that started with a “p” – Peri – and we’ve moved on to the Shaked Committee, but the bill only passed in its first reading so far, and what has become known as “equality in the burden” is far from reality.
The electoral reform bill approved in a first reading this week also isn’t original. Yisrael Beytenu proposed identical legislation in the last Knesset, and Yesh Atid’s version is not that different.
What’s new is the progress electoral reform has made. The bill has the backing of most of the government, and with the opposition breaking an agreement with Netanyahu about not filibustering the budget vote late Monday night, nothing is now stopping the coalition from passing it as early as October 14, when the winter session begins.
The object of Bennett’s big ultimatum last week, the Referendum Bill, is a law that was already passed in 2010. What he and Netanyahu essentially wanted was to reinforce the existing law, by giving it government support and making it a Basic Law. Nothing new there.
The Prawer-Begin-Bill regulating Beduin land claims in the Negev is the fruit of former minister without portfolio Bennie Begin’s labor in the last government.
He put in much effort in an attempt to come to a compromise with the Beduin, and the Knesset voted on it in June.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar lengthened Daylight Saving Time by a month, which essentially implements a bill MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) proposed in the last Knesset.
Other bills that were basically new and – according to some MKs – improved versions of legislation that didn’t pass in the last Knesset, are the Nationality Bill, which would legally define Israel as a Jewish state, and a proposal meant to limit foreign governments’ funding of anti- Israel NGOs.
More often than not in this session, legislators voted on “applying continuity,” which means either to extend the implementation of laws or ordinances or to allow the Knesset to continue working on bills that passed in a first reading in the previous Knesset.
Over 1,500 private member bills were submitted, the vast majority of which were recycled by returning MKs whose exact same bill did not pass previously.
More of the same antics
In the 18th Knesset, MKs got creative. They brought cottage cheese into the plenum, sprayed deodorant and wrote dirty limericks.
The most interesting antic of this summer session was probably when MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) handcuffed himself to the podium in the plenum, saying that even if they are arrested for not enlisting in the IDF, yeshiva students will not stop studying Torah. It took 10 minutes for ushers to free Porush from the stand.
Still, Porush was aping Black Panther and ex-Hadash MK Charlie Biton, who handcuffed himself to the Knesset’s stage in 1978, during a debate on Prisoner of Zion Ida Nudel.
Haredi MKs repeated their usual lines when objecting to a bill that would require their sons and grandsons to enlist in the IDF or national service – in short, that secular and religious-Zionist Israelis hate them and Torah, and that Israel’s security depends on continuous Torah study that should be funded by the government.
In line with their belief that haredi enlistment is an “evil decree” akin to Haman’s decisions to destroy the Jews of Persia in the Book of Esther, UTJ MKs made like one of the book’s heroes, Mordechai, and tore their shirts in a sign of mourning. They did not, however, go so far as wearing sackcloth and ashes or declaring a national fast day, as Mordechai did.
Shas had a novel approach to haredi enlistment – going gimmick-free.
Unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, the Shas MKs seemed to be more focused on the chief rabbi election, and used the usual parliamentary tools to oppose haredi enlistments, like speeches, questions and motions to the agenda.
It seems to have paid off, too, since Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, was elected chief rabbi, while UTJ didn’t manage to block the enlistment bill from passing its first reading Wednesday.
The other memorable incident of this session was when one Arab MK after another – Jamal Zahalka (Balad), Afo Agbaria (Hadash), Haneen Zoabi (Balad), Masud Gnaim (United Arab List-Ta’al), Muhammad Barakei (Hadash) and others – demonstratively ripped copies of the Prawer- Begin Bill during its first reading.
Agbaria called for a third intifada if the bill, which legalizes around 63 percent of Beduin land claims, is implemented.
Ripping up the legislation was not enough for Tibi, who also poured water on it, saying it does not deserve respect – damaging the Knesset’s sound system and requiring repairs costing NIS 21,000.
The Knesset Ethics Committee suspended him from serving as deputy Knesset speaker.
This isn’t Tibi’s first run-in with the Ethics Committee over water. In the last Knesset, then-Yisrael Beytenu MK Anastasia Michaeli poured water on then-Labor MK Ghaleb Majadele. Tibi gave a speech about the incident, which essentially was a punfilled dirty limerick, and was suspended from the Knesset.
There were some brand new embarrassing moments in this Knesset, too, though, thanks to Lapid’s party’s love of Facebook.
Yesh Atid MK Boaz Toporovsky earned himself the nickname “Topless Toporovsky” after posting a smoldering “selfie” on the social network.
A photo of Toporovsky making bedroom eyes at the camera while lying on the sofa-bed in his office went viral. In the picture, the freshman MK is topless, but his shirt is covering his chest like a sheet. He captioned the image by writing that he was voting in the plenum until 4 a.m., and he’s glad there are showers in the Knesset.
A generous dose of girl power
One important, new fact about the 19th Knesset? It has 26 female members, more than ever before, many of them freshman, ranging politically from MK Tamar Zandberg of Meretz to Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, who have already left their mark.
Plus, three parties, Labor, Hatnua and Meretz, are led by women: Yacimovich, Tzipi Livni and Zehava Gal-On.
Some of the biggest battles leading up to this week’s budget vote were on women’s issues, like a tax on housewives that was eventually canceled and a more stringent daycare subsidy policy.
Veteran Likud Beytenu MKs Gila Gamliel, Orly Levy- Abecassis and Miri Regev spoke out against the planned policies, in cooperation with Yacimovich, Gal- On and Labor MK Merav Michaeli, who was an especially active Knesset Finance Committee member.
Michaeli was one of several “professional feminists” – MKs whose previous careers focused on women and women’s issues – in the current Knesset. She is joined by MK Michal Roisin (Meretz), former director-general of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, and MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), author of A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Lavie has been particularly active as chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, calling attention to injustices and inequality on an almost daily basis. Plus, her background as an accomplished author on women’s role in Judaism has come in handy when dealing with issues like agunot (Jewish women “chained” to their marriage) or the Women of the Wall.
A law proposed by Roisin would increase the possible civil penalty for sexual assault without proof of damages from NIS 50,000 to NIS 120,000, and progress has been made on legislation by MK Yifat Kariv (Yesh Atid) to consider the release of sex tapes or photos without consent to be sexual harassment.
Bayit Yehudi has three female MKs, more women in the Knesset than it or its predecessors, the National Religious Party and the National Union, ever had before.
Despite its not-so-auspicious history with women, the party’s breakout star so far is its faction chairwoman, Ayelet Shaked, an extremely active legislator involved in five of the seven aforementioned bills.
The other two female Bayit Yehudi MKs, Struck and Shuli Muallem, have done their part for their gender, too, with the former making sure that laws requiring employers to give workers maternity leave apply to women in Judea and Samaria, and the latter passing a law ensuring there would be women on the committee appointing judges to religious courts.
To sum up the last few months in the Knesset with another biblical idiom, “There’s nothing new under the sun” – unless you happen to be a woman. The male MKs now have two-and-a half months to rest and try to find ways to catch up.