This week legislation introduced by right-wing members of Knesset passed in quick succession, nearly unanimously with the exception of lawmakers who boycotted the debates. Within two days the government approved military conscription for ultra-Orthodox, raised the electoral threshold to serve in the Knesset which will keep Arab parties out of office, and amended the Basic Law for the first time in 22 years to require a referendum on ceding any Israeli controlled land during negotiations.
On Tuesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman introduced a series of election regulations set to disenfranchise small parties and consolidate medium-sized political blocs, called the Governability Law. The Knesset threshold for winning a seat in government was increased from 2% to 3.25% of the overall vote. Had the threshold been in place during the last election, no Arab parties, the only bi-national party, religious parties and the left-wing group Meretz all would have been kept out of office. The bill passed 67-0.
“The public should know that a high electoral threshold will be a major barrier for entering the Knesset,” decried Dov Khenin of Hadash, the Arab-Israeli communist party who boycotted the vote, “and will turn it into a closed club against new forces that are not supported by the tycoons and the rich.”
While the Governability Law was in discussion, Palestinian and left-wing Israeli members of Knesset left the hall to host an alternate debate. Lieberman responded the walk-out was a, “a show of hypocrisy and crybabyish behavior,” organized by “an Opposition of the terror organization representatives, of the post-Zionists, of the crybabies.”
Yet for the bill’s backers, Lieberman and his predominately Russian, secular-nationalist constituents, the law’s benefit is not only keeping Palestinians out of government (a long-time Lieberman threat), but also creating the incentive to build ruling coalitions with only one or two key partners.
In the 2009 elections Lieberman won 16 seats, earning more than the Labor party. But Lieberman’s abrasiveness and nationalistic platform, along with being identified as a representative of Jews from the former Soviet Union kept him from substantially increasing his base. But under the Governability Law he won’t need to. Without the option of partnering with smaller parties, leading parties like Likud will be even more bound to the agenda of medium sized groups like his Yisrael Beitenu. While in the past forming a government involved triangulating the whims of opposing groups, the new rules allow a smaller number of parties to form a government. And considering this week, where Likud, HaBayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beitenu all joined forces to stomp through right-wing campaign promises, it appears the hard-right has already tested the waters of the rule of the simple majority.
Following the passing of the Governability Law, Knesset immediately began debating the Haredim Military Conscription Law, approving it the next day. The more moderate Yesh Atid, led by former news presenter Yair Lapid, has pushed for this law since the last national election. Ayelet Shaked from HaBayit Yehudi, the religious-Zionist party, introduced the bill, which sparked massive protests in Jerusalem and New York last week. During this debate, it was religious parties that boycotted the vote.
Still, the Haredim Conscription Law allows for the continual exemption of up to 1,800 ultra-Orthodox designated as “gifted scholars.”
The final piece of legislation in the “package deal” that passed yesterday afternoon was the Referendum Law. It requires public approval on relinquishing any Israeli controlled territory in negotiations, including Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but not the West Bank and Gaza as those territories are occupied and not annexed. The same referendum tenet was already added into Israeli law in 2010, but this bill sought to make the referendum part of Israeli Basic Law, the highest set of laws in the country in lieu of a formal constitution. As a result, it is widely viewed that the Referendum Law was approved as a mechanism to delay any future territorial concession to the Palestinians through negotiations.
The feat of passing three major pieces of legislation in nearly 24 hours was executed after Israel’s hard-liners emerged from a Knesset meeting last Sunday. HaBayit Yehudi’s Orit Struck, a newcomer to Knesset and settler from Hebron, explained, “As long as discussions in the Shaked [military draft] committee haven’t ended, and the vote hasn’t gone according to our complete satisfaction, as was promised to us during coalition negotiations, MK Shuli Moalem and I will not support the Governability Law.” Struck’s comments show how the secular and religious-nationalist parties came together to cut a deal: The Hardeim would finally be included in national army conscription in exchange for Lieberman’s vision of keeping Arab parties out of office and consolidating his influence in Likud and the Prime Minister’s office.