The common wisdom in the Knesset is that the winter session is intense, long and grueling – it usually includes a budget vote that feels interminable – and the short summer session is lighter, breezier.
This year, however, as the Knesset goes back to work on Monday, it doesn’t look like the MKs are going to have an easy summer.
The big question that closed out the winter session in March still remains: Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu want to call an early election? Unless something drastic happens, that question will cast a shadow over the Knesset for the next 11 weeks.
The theory is that Netanyahu would like to be reelected before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit makes a decision whether to indict him or not. However, Mandelblit recently said he’ll make his final decision after all investigations into alleged corruption by the prime minister are closed, so that buys Netanyahu much more time, if the theory is true.
Still, the coalition is acting like it’s in a rush to get things done in this summer session, which ends July 18, in case an early election is in the cards.
On Sunday, coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) sent a letter to coalition lawmakers saying that no absences are allowed next week, when several bills requiring a 61-MK majority – as opposed to a regular majority out of whomever is in the room – are going to vote.
First, there’s Basic Law: Nation-State of the Jewish People, the bill that seeks to officially declare Israel the Jewish state and describe what that entails, ranging from more innocuous things like the national anthem and state symbol to greater controversies, giving Hebrew a legal status superior to that of Arabic, and allowing the establishment of towns that exclude people who are not members of the community. Netanyahu is an enthusiastic backer of the bill by Likud MK Avi Dichter.
Then there’s the bill by Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi), amending Basic Law: Principles of Justice to tell judges to rule “in light of the principles of Jewish law” in matters in which there’s no legal precedent. The proposed change has faced strong opposition from the center and left of the political map.
Next, there’s legislation meant to further limit convicted terrorists from running for seats in the Knesset. While it may seem baffling that someone convicted on terrorism-related charges can run for politics at all, legal advisers argued that an outright ban from the Knesset would be overturned by the High Court. Therefore, the bill extends the current seven-year ban on people convicted of crimes with moral turpitude to 14 years for convicted terrorists.
Finally, there’s the bill that gives the security cabinet, rather than the full cabinet, the authority to declare war. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked argued that this has been the de facto situation for years, but some in the opposition expressed concern that this would open the door to groupthink.
And that’s all just next week.
LOOKING FURTHER ahead, there are issues that have the potential to tear the coalition apart.
There’s the “override clause” for the Supreme Court, which Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett has been enthusiastically pushing. The bill states that a 61-MK majority can repass a bill that has been struck down by the Supreme Court.
The reordering of relations between the legislative and judiciary branches of government rose again in light of two recent rulings, foremost of which was the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the government’s plan to deport African migrants to a third country. Netanyahu faced sharp criticism on the Right when he moved toward a compromise that would keep half the migrants in the country, and since then, he’s been looking for a way to go back to deporting most of them.
The other matter that the override clause would resolve is haredi conscription in the IDF. The coalition is rushing to meet a September deadline to pass a law to replace the ultra-Orthodox community’s exemption from military service, after the Supreme Court struck it down last year as discriminatory. As part of the compromise reached to end March’s coalition crisis, the Defense Ministry is supposed to present its proposed bill by the end of May. But if the coalition is moving toward overriding Supreme Court rulings, a new bill may not be necessary. Still, it’s unclear that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman would agree, which would make it much harder – though not impossible – to reapprove the exemption.
But the override clause itself is not a matter of consensus within the coalition. Bennett threatened this week to leave the coalition and initiate an election, if the bill is not brought to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation by May 6. Netanyahu said he supports the bill; in fact, he supported banning the Supreme Court outright from overturning laws, until Mandelblit said he favors Bennett’s idea.
But now Netanyahu has delayed moving forward with it, so he can talk to Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who certainly will not have good things to say about the idea. And Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who tends to oppose changes to the status quo when it comes to the court, hasn’t given a solid okay to the move.
All of this together is a recipe for a hot summer in the Knesset – or maybe for an early election.