‘Coalition discipline” means all MKs belonging to parliamentary groups that are members of the government coalition being expected to vote in favor of, or against, certain legislation according to the will of the coalition management, irrespective of their personal feelings or beliefs.
Coalition discipline is not an Israeli invention.
There are some countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Norway, where coalition discipline is highly structured and regulated. In Israel such discipline is partly dealt with in specific provisions of coalition agreements, while the rest is conjunctural.
For example, according to all the coalition agreements signed by the Likud with its partners following the 2015 elections, all coalition members must vote in favor of whatever legislation the Likud submits with regard to the media. Since the prime minister decided to keep the Communications Ministry in his own hands (until the High Court of Justice caused him to resign the position in February 2017) this meant that all coalition members were bound to vote in favor of the government legislation concerning the establishment of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, even though Netanyahu’s moves on the issue were clearly dictated by his desire to attain more favorable media coverage.
Another example is the coalition agreement between the Likud and Kulanu, which enumerated a list of issues regarding which Kulanu undertook to maintain coalition discipline, such as the enlistment (or rather non-enlistment) of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) into the IDF in accordance with agreements to be reached between the Likud and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). The agreement also specified one issue on which coalition discipline would not be applied to Kulanu: government legislation regarding the “supersession clause” – in other words, the ability of the Knesset to supersede rulings by the High Court regarding laws the court finds to be contrary to basic laws dealing with human rights.
One may like or dislike these various provisions in the coalition agreements, but they are a legitimate phenomenon, which most experts agree are necessary to preserve at least a semblance of government unity and stability given the great heterogeneity of Israel’s coalition governments, and the cross purposes prevalent among their members.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the imposition of coalition discipline in cases that do not involve issues included in the coalition agreements, many feel that there is gross exaggeration in Israel. And given the aggressiveness with which it has been imposed in the current Knesset, especially since MK David Bitan was appointed coalition chairman, there is great discomfiture among those who feel the situation seriously impairs the ability of honest MKs to execute their task of representation.
The exaggerated use of coalition discipline is not a new phenomenon. Already in the 18th Knesset, then Knesset speaker President Reuven Rivlin suggested in an article that the balance between the independence of MKs and the need to grant them freedom of thought in decision-making, and coalition and parliamentary group discipline, which is a sine qua non for the smooth operation of the legislative system, had been broken.
Today the situation is much worse than it was in 2010 when Rivlin wrote his article, despite the fact that the government at the time (Netanyahu’s second) was much less homogeneous ideologically than the current one but whose members nevertheless appeared to act in a much more rational, comradely and responsible manner. The members of the current coalition seem to be guided by the saying: “Après nous, le déluge.” It should be noted that Netanyahu’s second government served a full term, which, by the look of things, the current government is unlikely to achieve.
It seems strange that in the current coalition the parliamentary groups that make it up, and many of their MKs, seem so willing to threaten the unity of the coalition unless they get their way, even though none of them really wants early elections, that are unlikely to result in the establishment of a similar coalition, both in terms of its make-up and possibly its head as well.
In an attempt to keep the coalition together at any price, despite or because of the prime minister’s unclear legal situation, and the much more precarious legal situation of the coalition chairman, the imposition of coalition discipline has reached absurd levels.
Thus last Monday, when the government insisted on getting the Knesset to approve a medley of half-baked or bizarre bills in first reading, going so far as to rush the prime minister back from Brussels, despite a blizzard there, to attend the all-night Knesset session, the most extreme tools available to the coalition to impose discipline were applied.
For example, in order to get the “Supermarket Bill” (which enables the interior minister to prevent additional stores from being opened on Saturdays) through first reading, pressure was put on Kulanu to withdraw its MKs’ voting freedom, and on Likud MKs who object to the bill on principle (e.g. MK Sharren Haskel) or saw an opportunity to force the government to support legislation they had submitted but that had been rejected (e.g. MK Yehuda Glick).
Several MKs voted against their conscience (including MK Meirav Ben-Ari of Kulanu), while only Haskel stayed out of the plenum during the vote – a brave decision that may well cost her her seat in the next Knesset.
And why all of this? Because Shas leader Arye Deri threatened to leave the coalition unless the bill was passed in first reading that night, even though new elections are the last thing Deri wants at the moment and a majority in the Knesset thinks the law is superfluous.
In fact the bill came into being only because Deri wanted to prove to his voters that he is as concerned about preventing violations of Shabbat as UTJ, which recently caused its health minister (Ya’acov Litzman) to resign (his post, but not membership in the coalition) because of repair work on the railway network on Shabbat (nothing new, just an inexplicable sudden whim by the 78-year-old head of Hassidut Gur).
I bet nothing would have happened had Netanyahu simply said to Deri, “Resign if you wish, and bear the consequences.” But the political reality in Israel at the moment is anything but sane and logical, and the application of excessive coalition discipline is likely to continue, unless coalition MKs get up one morning and say enough is enough.