While the government falls, the Knesset shows surprising cooperation -analysis

The last ten days showed a glimpse of what a robust, highly competitive but respectful Knesset could look like.

 Bennett reaches out to Netanyahu as MK Idit Silman looks on following a vote on the new coalition in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Bennett reaches out to Netanyahu as MK Idit Silman looks on following a vote on the new coalition in the Knesset on June 13, 2021.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

Labor, Welfare and Health Committee chair MK Efrat Rayten (Labor) proudly presented a bill to the Knesset plenum on Monday that her committee had labored over for months. The historic law will see people with disabilities moved out of hostels and organized dorms in which they currently live, and into independent living within a community.

Religious Zionism MK Michal Woldiger, who teared up while Reiten was speaking, approached the podium to speak next and the two women hugged.

The two come from the opposite sides of the political spectrum, and the heartwarming moment captured the complete topsy-turvy world that was the Knesset over the past 10 days.

The past year looked nothing like that

While former prime minister Naftali Bennett and new prime minister Yair Lapid ran the government relatively smoothly, the Knesset was a different story. For the coalition MKs, the past year was more like a ceaseless, frustrating, political trench warfare.

From the moment the two announced that they had successfully formed a coalition on June 2 last year, the opposition began an effective assault that did not cease throughout the year. Since the Norwegian Law enabled ministers to resign from the Knesset, many did not have to suffer through numerous all-nighters and incessant catcalling from the opposition.

Likud MKs filibustered nearly every piece of legislation, and to the very end did all it could to block any coalition successes, including major bills such as the Metro Law and the US visa laws. The Metro Law set a framework for expanding the Tel Aviv Light Rail network into a full subway system, and the US visa laws were a number of bills that needed to pass, so that Israelis could travel to the US without requiring a visa.

But the opposition didn’t just defend. Again and again, it proposed bills intended to force the right-wing coalition MKs to vote against their conscious and embarrass themselves. Just last Wednesday, the coalition was forced to vote down a bill proposed by Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich and Likud MK Shlomo Karhi to apply sovereignty to West Bank settlements, which many on the Right support.

The opposition also boycotted the Knesset committees for the entire year over what they argued were coalition attempts to give itself a larger-than-normal majority in the most substantial committees, including the Knesset Committee, Appropriations Committee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

A handful of mostly haredi MKs consistently attended their assigned committees throughout the year. Other opposition MKs participated sporadically, often to either promote a bill that they had put forward, or to filibuster and stall the coalition. But for the most part, the coalition was left alone.

Indeed, the committee work was one of the 24th Knesset’s major achievements, according to a coalition source.

The coalition's problems

The Law Committee, for example, acted as an important counterweight to the government’s hurried emergency measures, and made sure to safeguard Israeli citizens’ privacy, the source said. The Public Security Committee and a number of other new committees and subcommittees held numerous substantial meetings that included oversight and criticism of the executive branch, the source said.

But the opposition’s absence also meant that the committees it was supposed to lead did not form. These included the State’s Ombudsman’s Committee and the Ethic’s Committee.

The coalition felt the weight of the opposition’s criticism in the plenum, but it was not counterbalanced by thorough and constructive criticism, the source said. The lack of an ethics committee meant that no MKs from either side of the aisle could be sanctioned for their actions in the plenum and elsewhere, and this too impeded the coalition’s work.

But the coalition’s problems also came from within, the source said. While Yamina’s MKs are the ones who eventually defected, Bennett’s party members made sure not to vote against bills put forward by the coalition’s left flank no matter how uncomfortable they were with it, he said. The most they did was not attend the vote, and only when their vote was not needed for the bill to pass. Only three out of the eight coalition parties – Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu – were squarely right-wing, and while the government had a parenthetical system where each bloc was given equal weight, in the Knesset each MK was worth one vote. The center-left pushed too hard on its own agendas, and did not take into account the price that some of the right-wing MKs were paying among their political base.

Another problem was that the coalition leadership had little experience, the source said. The most experienced political operators all became ministers and were replaced by the fresh, inexperienced “Norwegian” MKs. Nearly all of the Knesset faction heads were inexperienced in political wheeling and dealing, and this caused continuous friction.

In addition, every party other than Yesh Atid and Blue and White felt like they were representing a minority, whether it was Ra’am representing Israeli Arabs, Meretz representing hard-left human-rights activists, or New Hope representing strongly anti-Bibi right-wing voters. The weight in the center was not strong enough to anchor and bring together the other parties, the source said. This eventually led to the dissent of the MKs on both edges of the political spectrum: MKs Idit Silman and Nir Orbach on the Right, and MKs Mazen Ghanaim (Ra’am) and Ghaida Rinawi Zouabi on the Left.

Ironically, the coalition’s founding tenet was to maintain the status quo on all ideological issues with which the sides disagreed. It was exactly the coalition’s inability to maintain that status quo that led to its fall, the source said, referring to the coalition’s failure to pass the West Bank emergency regulations that apply Israeli law (not sovereignty) to citizens in Judea and Samaria, which have been extended every five years since 1967.

The coalition still had a number of legislative successes

The coalition still had a number of legislative successes. Most importantly, it managed to pass a budget, the first to pass in three years. It also passed a number of laws that did away with unnecessary regulatory measures in bodies such as the Standards Institute, which is responsible for setting standards for products and services provided in Israel; passed an electricity bill of particular importance to Ra’am that connected some of the residents of the Negev who lived in unauthorized towns to the central power grid; succeeded in passing a variety of important laws such as raising soldiers’ salaries by 50% and providing a scholarship of up to 75% of tuition costs for veterans of combat units, and more.

Throughout the year, nearly every one of the coalition’s legislative successes came after a prolonged battle with the opposition.

However, after the Knesset announced it was dispersing last Monday, the environment in the building changed.

Representatives from both sides negotiated in hallway huddles for over a week on which bills would and would not pass before the dispersal. Opposition MKs who had not attended committee debates showed up and participated in the back and forth about the date of the election and many details regarding Election Day itself. And most importantly, the two sides cooperated on a number of bills of which some were groundbreaking and even historic. This is not to say that they had not been cooperating before, but previously joint bills were rare, and MKs from both sides who engaged in them were often derided by their colleagues.

In the entire year until the dispersal announcement, the coalition was able to pass 73 laws. But in the 10 days afterward, with the opposition now also eager to score last-minute achievements, they passed over 20 more.

These included the “Omicron Law,” which provided funding for businesses that were hurt financially by the corona wave during January and February; the “poisoned fruit” law, which gave judges the authority to disqualify evidence that was obtained illegally; the above-mentioned Disabilities Law; a bill that extended the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of minors; a new version of the election law that requires campaigns to mark any social media activity that is funded; and others.

In those 10 days, the coalition and opposition still battled fiercely over sections and subsections of bills. But because both sides were now invested, the people of Israel were the ones who benefited from the competition. The last 10 days showed a glimpse of what a robust, highly competitive but respectful Knesset could look like.