Last Tuesday, at 2:30 a.m., after many nerve-racking hours of politicking and spins, amendment No. 24 to the Absorption of Discharged Soldiers Law (the Uniform to Studies Bill), brought to the Knesset by the government, was adopted by the Knesset.
The amendment offers 75% of the higher education tuition in both academic and art institutions, from the state budget, to all discharged soldiers, who have completed their military service – be they Jewish, new immigrants (including those who are not considered Jewish according to the halacha), Druze, Arab, Circassian, and lone soldiers.
In the past, the state offered 50% of the tuition, in institutes of higher education in the periphery, and to soldiers from the periphery (“assistance areas”), which was financed by external financial donations and bequests – not the state budget.
The government made great efforts to secure a majority for the amendment, without relying on the votes of the opposition. However, to be on the safe side, efforts were also made to get the Likud to support the bill, especially since the previous version of the law had been passed by the Knesset in 2016, when the Likud was in power, and today’s Finance Minister, Avigdor Liberman, was minister of defense.
But the Likud was not inclined to cooperate, though there were a few senior Likud MKs who argued that the Likud should not play politics over matters connected with benefits for soldiers. One of them was MK Yoav Galant – a reserve major general.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, argued that the Likud’s main goal was to bring down the government as quickly as possible, which meant that it should not support any bill brought by the government.
However, he said that he would be willing to support the Uniform to Studies Bill if a Likud amendment, that would provide 100% of the tuition (compared to the 66% that was originally offered by the government) would be adopted. Netanyahu even declared that if the government rejected his proposal, the Likud would bring its own bill with the offer of 100%.
It was clear that the Likud was bluffing, since there was no scenario in which it could pass such a bill while in opposition. But just as it seemed as though the Likud would vote against the bill, and all of the commentators were stating that the whole matter would end in a lose-lose situation, Defense Minister Benny Gantz (who had initiated the bill) mounted the podium in the plenum and offered to raise the sum provided by the state to 75% of the tuition.
The Likud agreed, and decided to stay away from the vote, thus giving the government a 55-6 victory.
WHY DID the Likud concede? As far as we know, the reason was that Channel 12 TV published a recording from the Likud parliamentary group meeting that had voted in favor of voting against the bill, in which MK Miri Regev is heard explaining the decision. She said: “We decided that as a fighting opposition we want to bring down this government, so there are no bellyaches. There are no bellyaches concerning cases of rape, and there are no bellyaches concerning battered women, there are no bellyaches with soldiers. Everyone understands that this is the rationale.
“The moment there is an important law, connected to soldiers, connected to the disabled, connected to something that touches the soft belly of each and every one of us – we must be prepared. We adopted a decision as an opposition: we do not vote for any law” brought by the government.
Criticism of the Likud
The public’s reaction to the content of the leak was sufficiently negative, even among right-wingers, to convince the Likud to retract. The public also reacted negatively to the fact that Netanyahu had dragged Galant to a joint filmed statement in which Galant was forced to nod in “approval” as Netanyahu explained the Likud’s decision to vote against the bill. Galant looked as if he had just swallowed a frog.
This whole embarrassing episode will not save the government. Sooner or later the government will fall. However, it does give us concrete evidence concerning the policy that Netanyahu has imposed on his party since the “government of change” was sworn in almost a year ago.
The policy is that the opposition should concentrate on one thing and one thing only: doing everything conceivable to delegitimize the government, and try to bring it down, even if this means opposing government bills that are good for the country, or which the Likud supports for ideological reasons.
I have been searching for similar situations in other democratic countries and have failed to find any. In democratic states, there are very rare cases of opposition parties claiming that a certain government is illegal because of fraud in elections (that is not the case in Israel today).
There are cases of opposition parties claiming that the policies promoted by a certain government are wrong and/or ruinous to the country – but in such cases, the opposition parties present detailed alternative policies.
Nowhere have I found the case of an opposition in a democratic country that has spent close to a year declaring that the current legally elected government is corrupt, dangerous, totally incompetent and anti-patriotic, without bringing a shred of proof to substantiate its claims.
Nowhere have I found an opposition that has accused one of the components of the current government – a party representing a minority group constituting 20% of the population – of supporting terror, of seeking to destroy the state, and of blackmailing it, again without bringing a shred of proof, and without conceding that a minority in a democratic state deserves to receive its fair share of the country’s resources and budgets, and willingness to solve its burning problems, whether or not it is represented in the government.
Netanyahu actually had the gall to accuse the government of offering the soldiers “only” 66% of the tuition for higher education and not 100% because it had promised NIS 50 billion to the Arabs, and had bribed the “Zoabis.”
What I did find was an explanation for why certain populist political leaders choose to “vilify their opponents as the enemies of the nation and its people” while “identifying themselves with popular and patriotic symbols”.
In his introduction to the book, Legislative Decline in the 21st Century – which deals with the relations between parliaments and executives in several states that had formed part of the former Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc, as well as states in central Asia (including India) and in Africa – Prof. Michael Mezey had the following to say about populist leaders, who are in some these states, and who, according to him, are inclined to resort to demagoguery.
“As a candidate for office, the demagogue fans the fears of the public by exaggerating both the problems that the nation confronts... as well as his capacity to solve those problems. He promises order and safety to replace chaos and dangers, pride in place of humiliation, superiority in place of inferiority, leadership in place of inertia, strength in place of weakness, hope in place of despair.”
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has written extensively on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her recent Hebrew book, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, will be published in English in July by Routledge.