The Otzma Yehudit Party, led by National Security Minister MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, broke with coalition discipline and assisted the opposition in passing preliminary votes on two bills during Wednesday’s Knesset plenum session, due to the party’s claim that the Development of the Negev and Galilee and National Resilience Ministry headed by party No. 2 MK Yizhak Wasserlauf did not receive sufficient funding in the 2023-2024 budget, which is set to pass next week.
The coalition will likely succeed in passing the national 2023-2024 budget by the end of next week, according to a packed Knesset plenum schedule for next week that was approved on Monday.
According to the schedule, the plenum will open at 9 a.m. Monday instead of 4 p.m. and run without stopping until Tuesday evening at 8:30 p.m., a total of 35.5 hours straight. During this time the plenum will debate the package of seven laws that make up the national budget. MKs will not remain in the plenum the entire time, but will rotate in and out in order to rest.
According to Wasserlauf, Otzma Yehudit and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party agreed that they would receive equal shares of the coalition funds, which are a part of the national budget intended to fulfill political agreements that have budgetary significance. However, included in those funds, which were approved in the Knesset Finance Committee earlier this week, are NIS 1.3 billion earmarked for National Missions Minister MK Orit Struk, who is a member of RZP, as opposed to just NIS 450 million for Wasserlauf.
The coalition, which normally enjoys a 64-to-56 advantage in the Knesset plenum, was forced to vote in favor of two bills by Knesset members from the opposition Yesh Atid Party after Ben-Gvir decided to support them. Since its inception, save for special circumstances, the current coalition automatically opposed every bill proposed by the opposition, and therefore Yesh Atid considered the two bills that passed the preliminary vote to be a small victory.
“Senior coalition members,” usually a pseudonym for the prime minister or other members acting on his orders, criticized Ben-Gvir, telling Channel 12 that the national security minister “cares more for media coverage than for the coalition’s integrity.”
“In government, problems are solved together, and contrary to his spins, he is not the only one who cares about the Negev and Galilee,” they said. “Maybe it is better that they bring down the government, head to an election, and the public will get rid of those who brought down a right-wing government. The rise of a left-wing government will be his doing.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly met with Ben-Gvir on Wednesday to solve the dispute. While the coalition funds are unlikely to change, as this would require time-consuming new voting by the Knesset Finance Committee, the issue will likely be resolved and is unlikely to threaten the budget’s passage.
The move by Ben-Gvir came just weeks after he announced a boycott of the cabinet and Knesset due to what he claimed was Israel’s insufficient response to rocket fire from Gaza. The party canceled the boycott after Operation Shield and Arrow was launched. In addition, at the end of March, Ben-Gvir threatened to quit the government over Netanyahu’s announcement to freeze legislation of its judicial reforms. He relented after receiving a signed promise from the prime minister to kick-start a process to form a National Guard, which the National Security minister promoted during last year’s election campaign.
The prime minister, finance minister, opposition leader and Knesset Finance Committee chairman will then summarize the debate, after which voting on the hundreds of sections and reservations for their second and third readings will commence.
The coalition hopes to pass the entire package into law by the end of the week, perhaps as early as Wednesday. However, it scheduled another plenum session at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, May 29, in case this is delayed. The budget must pass by May 29 at midnight, or else the Knesset automatically disperses and an election is called.
Finance Committee approves coalition funds
The Finance Committee convened on Wednesday to approve a final version of the coalition funds, which are intended to pay for political agreements. The coalition funds add up to over NIS 13.6b. for the 2023-2024 period, over six times the coalition funds spent by the previous government during the 2021-2022 period. Approximately NIS 3.7b. are earmarked for private or semi-private haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools or religious study academies (yeshivot) that are not required to teach core non-religious subjects such as English or mathematics.
Agudat Yisrael, the Hassidic faction within the United Torah Judaism Party, claimed on Tuesday that it also had not received what it had been promised in the coalition agreements. Primarily, the party is demanding over NIS 600 million additional coalition funding for its school systems.
The party also claims that it received promises that funding for Deputy Culture and Sports Minister Yaakov Tessler and for Jerusalem and Jewish Tradition Minister Meir Porush would be part of the base of the budget, and not merely part of the coalition funds. According to Porush’s spokesperson, funding that is part of the base is funneled automatically, but coalition funds are not, and require additional procedures. The party is demanding that the government fulfills these promises as well.
Agudat Yisrael’s political leadership convened on Wednesday evening to discuss its options in the week remaining until the budget is expected to pass. If necessary, the party will convene its Council of Torah Sages to decide whether or not to support the budget.
Judicial reform negotiations advancing, as per reports
A number of reports emerged on Wednesday morning that the teams negotiating the government’s judicial reforms were nearing agreements on two issues – the “reasonableness clause” and the status of legal advisers in government ministries.
According to the report, these came in addition to agreements reached weeks ago about mechanisms for legislating Basic Laws and for the necessary criteria for the High Court to strike down a law. Yediot Aharonot’s Nadav Eyal reported that a deal was offered to the opposition, in which they would announce the agreements in exchange for a pledge to push off all judicial reform legislation by half a year.
Both National Unity and Yesh Atid denied the reports.
“There are no agreements at the President’s Residence; there are still gaps on all subjects,” National Unity said. “In any case there will be no agreements until a solution is presented regarding the Judicial Selection Committee that will ensure that there will be no politicization in judicial appointments and in the judicial system in general.”
Yesh Atid said that “we committed ourselves to safeguard democracy and the High Court of Justice’s independence, and we will not give this up for any price. Until the Judicial Selection Committee is convened and the court’s independence is secured, all of the rumors about concessions and agreements are tendentious and unnecessary leaks.”
Maariv also quoted sources in the coalition as saying that whatever agreements are made must pass into law by the end of the Knesset’s summer session on July 31, meaning that the coalition would also not agree to a half-year delay.
In other news, Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh announced his retirement from political life in a video message released on his social media on Tuesday night.
“Thank you all from the bottom of my heart,” he wrote on Facebook. “I have decided not to run for the next term of the Knesset. I will seek with you to build the largest unit based on the political program that brought us to 15 seats [in 2020], to our collective and true sense of power. Thank you, thank you all for every moment of the last eight years.”
Sources close to Odeh told Maariv that “he wants to bring in new blood and refresh the political landscape.”
“He understands that there is currently no possibility of uniting the Arab parties... so he is taking action and making room [for new people],” the sources said.
Odeh is credited with founding the Joint List, a conglomeration of Arab parties that landed a record 15 seats in the 2020 Knesset.