Tough dilemmas to give coalition long last week before Passover break

Political Affairs: The coalition's dilemma - pass the softened bill and risk continued protests; delay it, and risk upsetting the coalition’s hardliners.

 K SIMCHA ROTHMAN with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on Wednesday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
K SIMCHA ROTHMAN with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on Wednesday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Something unexpected happened on Monday this week, after the heads of all of the coalition parties, in a joint statement late Sunday night, adopted Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman’s “softened” version of the new makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee, whereby the coalition will have an automatic majority, but may only appoint two High Court justices per term without an opposition MK’s consent.

Members within the coalition began to criticize the bill as being too soft.

Why unexpected?

Because for weeks, coalition ministers and MKs, especially from the Likud and including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, have been pressuring Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin to unilaterally soften the reform, in order to calm down the chaotic atmosphere.

The two acquiesced, reluctantly. Finally, they thought, they would be able to pass the first and most important part of the reform with the coalition’s full support, and even receive some praise for their willingness to compromise.

 CONSTITUTION, LAW and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman tries to maintain order during a committee session last week.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) CONSTITUTION, LAW and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman tries to maintain order during a committee session last week. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

They were wrong. The slight shift suddenly gave voice to hardliners from within the coalition, whose voices had not been noticed previously.

Likud hardliners

The criticism began within the Likud.

The party held a closed-door debate on the softened proposal, which lasted approximately three hours on Monday afternoon. Then they voted. MKs Danny Danon, David Amsalem, Moshe Saada and Moshe Passal voted no. MKs May Golan, Boaz Bismuth and Tally Gotliv criticized the new version, but voted yes.

“New plan? Yes. Compromise? Yes. Surrender? Surely not,” Danon explained on Twitter. “From the first moment I made it clear that I support the reform. The people gave us a clear mandate to conduct changes in the judicial system, and I said I would give this full backing. I thought that it is possible and necessary to compromise, for the sake of unity, but to compromise is not to surrender."

“Unfortunately, in recent days and weeks the coalition’s conduct has not been good. Coalition partners’ plans are proposed in the dead of night, zigzagging from 0 to 100 and from 100 to 0. It is not right to give up on core issues without broad agreement."

“It is clear to everyone that our steps will only lead to a sharpening of the struggle and delegitimization of the people’s democratic choice. If the move would have brought wide consensus, it would have been proper to consider extensive compromise. But now we are left only with a fabulous retreat and no agreement. Too bad,” Danon wrote.

Also noteworthy was MK David Bitan’s criticism during the meeting, that pro-compromise members of the party had not been contacted before the new proposal was published.

“This is the last time that I support a compromise before you have spoken to us,” he said to party leadership. “We are not your marionettes. You are speaking to everyone but not to us. This time I will vote yes – but it is the last time. From now on consult with us first. We are not the coalition’s foreign workers. If you do not consult with us, we will vote against you,” Bitan said, according to Ynet.

The softened version of the bill was enough to placate MK Yuli Edelstein, who will likely support it. But a new problem became apparent as the week progressed: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s vote was not assured.

Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi are continuously updating Netanyahu about the reform’s effects on the army, especially the refusal of pilots and special forces to deploy for reserve training. The IDF’s assessment a month ago about its impact ended up being correct, and if its current assessment of what will happen in the next month is correct, the IDF will be facing serious problems. Gallant will not lend his hand to damaging the IDF. He may still vote in favor of the Judicial Selection Committee bill, but the committee itself will not convene immediately, and Gallant may resign or act against the coalition if he deems it necessary.

Criticism erupted among members of Otzma Yehudit as well.

“This compromise, which comes from a place of weakness, is, in layman’s terms, surrender. The cultured Right, which is not burning the country, expects an essential change in the judicial system, and not a white flag disguised as a compromise,” MK Almog Cohen wrote.

“We will not allow this to happen,” he added.

Another Otzma Yehudit MK, Yitzhak Kroizer, said regarding the new proposal that the party “had not been part of the softening that MK Rothman proposed, and is uncomfortable with it.”

A number of Otzma Yehudit MKs were set to meet with Levin on Thursday in order to hear him out. Only then will they make up their minds whether to support the bill, according to Cohen’s spokesman.

The broad, supposedly homogeneous coalition is facing a short blanket dilemma, and the margins are narrow. Fail to compromise, and risk losing the support of pro-compromise Likud members, such as Edelstein and Gallant; compromise, and risk losing support of hardliners from the Likud and Otzma Yehudit.

Unexpected opposition

THE COALITION faced another unexpected twist later on in the week: Amsalem and Bitan announced that they were ditching the Knesset plenum until a bill proposal by Amsalem to apply 0% VAT to certain cancer treatments would advance in the Knesset.

What is this about?

Amsalem’s wife died of cancer, and the bill is important to him, a Likud source explained. But it is costly, and there is no budgetary source for it. Amsalem knew this. The bill was an excuse to threaten the coalition for a different reason – Netanyahu announced over a month ago that Amsalem would become a minister within the Justice Ministry, as well as the ministerial liaison to the Knesset. But this did not pan out, and Amsalem is livid, the source said.

How livid? Amsalem and Bitan are unlikely to skip a vote on the Judicial Selection Committee bill. But they skipped a vote early Thursday morning on the incapacitation bill. The bill, which barely passed the requisite 61-MK threshold, lifts the threat of the High Court removing Netanyahu from his position due to violation of a conflict of interest agreement. Amsalem and Bitan may skip similar “personal” bills – such as the Deri bill intended to get Deri reappointed as a minister, and the “gifts bill,” intended to enable Netanyahu to receive donations to cover his legal fees.

In fact, the source said, the coalition is currently operating with a narrow 61-MK majority. Other than Amsalem and Bitan, Noam MK Avi Maoz also announced this week that he was not heeding coalition discipline, after almost none of the promises he received in his coalition agreement were respected.

This is dangerous territory. It is enough for one more MK not to support the Deri law for it to fall – and this could lead to Shas toppling the government, the source explained.

The Knesset heads for its Passover recess on April 2. With one parliamentary week left, the coalition faces tough dilemmas. Pass the softened Judicial Selection Committee bill, and risk continued protests; delay it, and risk upsetting the coalition’s hardliners; and, in both scenarios, find a way to appease Gallant, Amsalem, Bitan and Maoz, or else the reforms may become the least of the government’s problems.

This article was written prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements to the media on Thursday evening.