At 12:00 in the morning on Monday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu emerged from the Knesset building wearing a broad smile. On the way to his car, he shook hands with countless well-wishers, in spite of the panic this evoked in his security guards. Netanyahu’s ebullience stemmed from the fact that he had just emerged from the Knesset plenum after scoring a victory in a second round of voting. The results of the vote were entirely expected: 61 members of the Knesset had supported his proposed law, while 59 had opposed it. That should give you a clear picture of the situation in the current government, which has yet to be sworn in. The coalition rests on a margin of just one vote, which means that any one member of the coalition has the power to bring down the government.
The day’s agenda was publicized already in the morning. “Proposed Basic Government Law: Amendment 3,” the schedule read. To put it in simpler terms, the government would be voting on a law that would make it possible to appoint more than 18 ministers. Another proposal that was to be brought before the Knesset was for a special committee to be established to discuss that law.
A bit of explanation is in order: The previous government, responding to the demand of then-Finance Minister and Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid, passed a law preventing the appointment of more than 18 ministers in the Israeli government. The law permitted the appointment of four deputy ministers, but no more than that. In forming the current government, Netanyahu promised to appoint more than 18 ministers, and at least eight deputy ministers. In order to do that, he needed to change the law. Since it is a “Basic Law,” it needed to be passed by a minimum of 61 votes, rather than merely a majority of the Knesset members voting at that time.
This is where the fight began. The opposition argued that it wasn’t appropriate for the present government, which still represents a continuation of the previous government, to pass a Basic Law. They demanded that a government of 18 ministers be established first, and that the new law be passed by that government. As of now, even the Knesset committees haven’t been formed yet, and there is only one committee that is currently operating. That committee, which is known as the Arrangements Committee, is responsible for making every decision about the Knesset’s schedule. On the morning of the vote on this law, major disputes took place within the Arrangements Committee, the likes of which have not been heard in the Knesset in a very long time. The chairman of the committee, MK Ze’ev Elkin, expelled one opposition member after another from the committee session. The bottom line was clear: Within the Arrangements Committee, a majority supported the government and the coalition. The decision was made for the Knesset plenum to vote on both the law itself and the establishment of a dedicated committee to prepare the law for its final approval.
The opposition threatened to launch a filibuster that would exhaust their rivals. The coalition laughed at the threat.
And so it was that a lengthy parade of speakers began. Every speaker said exactly what was expected of him. Opposition members lambasted the government for inflating its rank, accusing it of wasting public funds. Speakers from the coalition mocked the opposition members for their hypocrisy, since they would certainly have done the exact same thing had they been in a position to do so. The following are a few choice lines from the speech delivered by Yaakov Peri of Yesh Atid, who served as the Minister of Science in the previous government and has now become an ordinary member of the Knesset. Parenthetically, it should be noted that he has previously served as the head of the country’s intelligence services, and he is considered a highly respected public figure.
Peri said, “The ‘job law’ that the Netanyahu government is seeking to pass today is not democratic. Did the Likud voters ask for an inflated government containing ministers without portfolios, and for hundreds of millions of shekels to be squandered each year? The answer is an unequivocal no. Did the people who voted for the Kulanu party ask their leaders to establish a governmental system based on political corruption and monetary allocations for the Knesset members and for narrow political interests? The answer is no. The law that is under discussion today represents everything that is bad about Israeli politics. I turn to all of you, all 61 members of the coalition, and ask you not to be a party to this disgrace. Do not vote for this law. Vote for the people who elected you. Thank you very much.”
A DISPLAY OF HYPOCRISY
These sentiments were echoed by dozens of Knesset members from 4:00 until 10:00 at night. The response to all of them was delivered by Ofir Akunis, a member of the Knesset who is likely to hold a ministerial position in the new government. He took the podium and declared, “Mr. Speaker, this evening will be remembered as an evening of absolute hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in its fullest form has been revealed here tonight before the entire nation.”
He turned and addressed Yair Lapid directly: “In the speeches here today, especially those of the members of Yesh Atid, I hear a new attempt to turn the chareidi community into scapegoats to be exploited for political gain. This, by the way, is the exact same tactic that was used by your mother party, Shinui, may it rest in peace. As the chairman of Yesh Atid, you know very well that your father, who was a renowned journalist, a truly great man and a highly respected Minister of Justice, turned the chareidim into political scapegoats, and that is exactly what your party, Yesh Atid, is doing now.”
At 10:00, bells rang throughout the building, signaling that a vote was about to take place. All 120 members of the Knesset, headed by the prime minister himself, hurried to the Knesset plenum. The vote was conducted by name, rather than electronically. The result was that 61 members of the Knesset voted for the law, while the other 59 opposed it. The prime minister walked up and down the aisles, shaking hands. The coalition had won, although a touch of melancholy could be seen in the lawmakers’ faces.
The vote was followed by another debate, this one shorter, and then another vote. This time, the subject was the establishment of a special committee to discuss the new law and prepare it for a final round of voting. Once again, the results were the same: 61 votes in favor and 59 against. The committee began its work that very night. At midnight, when the rest of the legislators had gone home, the members of the committee remained in the Knesset building. The law is scheduled for its final vote on Wednesday, so that Netanyahu will be able to present his new government, with its 22 ministers and eight or more deputy ministers, as soon as next week.
The current coalition may be stable, but it is also complex. Members of the coalition, including the ministers, will be unable to leave the building when the Knesset plenum is in session, and certainly not when the Knesset is debating laws or no-confidence motions. That makes for a very difficult situation. And every member of the coalition can easily bring down the government, if he so chooses, or threaten the prime minister on the basis of that ability. It isn’t logical to assume that will happen, but anything is possible in the State of Israel. In fact, this week the newspapers reported that Yisroel Eichler of UTJ threatened not to vote for the new laws unless he was appointed to head the Public Petitions Committee. It is a small committee, but it wields a great deal of influence that can be used to protect the average citizen.
I contacted Eichler and asked him to explain the situation for the benefit of our readers in America.
Eichler replied, “I explained to the prime minister’s representatives that the Public Petitions Committee, which is the smallest committee in the Knesset, is also the most important committee to the chareidi public. While every Israeli citizen suffers from the government’s bureaucracy, the chareidim suffer more than anyone else. Because of that, I told them that it was unthinkable for this committee not to be given to us.”
WAS THAT STIPULATION INCLUDED IN THE COALITION AGREEMENT THAT UTJ SIGNED WITH LIKUD LAST WEEK?
“No, and that is actually surprising. We also thought that Uri Maklev was going to be the head of the Interior Committee. Ultimately, Uri received the Science Committee, which we had even during the previous government, when we were in the opposition. (At that time, the committee was chaired by Moshe Gafni.) I argued that we lacked the minimal tools we needed to serve our constituents.”
AND THAT IS WHEN YOU THREATENED NOT TO VOTE FOR THE TWO BILLS THAT WERE UP FOR DISCUSSION TONIGHT?
“No. I didn’t make any threats. There is an expression: ‘If you want, shoot, but don’t threaten.’”
THEN WHAT WAS IT?
“I simply informed the prime minister’s men, as well as our friends in the government, that we need this position. They claimed that even though they very much wanted to help us, and even though we were the first to sign a coalition agreement and were entitled to more privileges, it would be a breach of protocol and everything would have to be reexamined. I told them that we were shortchanged, since Aryeh Deri received eight positions in exchange for his seven mandates, and Bennett received nine in exchange for his eight mandates. And both of them received important offices: the Economy Ministry, the Ministry of Education, and the chairmanship of major committees. Shas received the Education Committee, while Bayit Yehudi took the Legislative Committee. These two parties have only one or two mandates more than we have, but what did we get? Only three positions: a deputy minister taking the place of a minister (Litzman’s position in the Ministry of Health); another deputy ministerial position (Porush in the Ministry of Education), which counts for nothing since there is an actual minister; and the chairmanship of the Finance Committee for Moshe Gafni. Three positions in exchange for six mandates! They treated us with disdain, and I warned them not to denigrate us or our claims, which are entirely justified. As Omri Sharon (the aggressive son of Ariel Sharon, who once served as a Knesset member on behalf of the Likud party) once put it, ‘You have to explain it in a way that they will understand.’ Well, they understood this, and I hope that they will keep their word.”
This seems to be an indication of how the new coalition will run the country.
WAITING FOR APPOINTMENTS
This brings us to the final stretch: Each of the parties in the coalition knows exactly which positions it will receive, but not all the members of each party know which of them will serve as minister. In Shas, for instance, no one other than Aryeh Deri knows who will receive which jobs. MK Rabbi Yaakov Margi, who has previously served as the Minister of Religious Affairs, has already announced that he is not interested in holding the position again. Tensions are now running high between Meshullam Nahari, Yitzchak Cohen, and Yaakov Margi of Shas, as they wait to see who will be designated the Minister of Religious Affairs, who will hold a ministerial or deputy ministerial position in the Finance Ministry, and who will be a deputy minister in the Economy or Welfare Ministry. Within UTJ, meanwhile, the division of appointments is clear: Litzman will be in the Health Ministry, Gafni will head the Finance Committee, Maklev will serve on the Science Committee, and Eichler, if he is right, will head the Public Petitions Committee. Kahlon, of course, is going to be the Minister of Finance, and it is likely that the second member of his list, former general Yoav Galant, will be the Minister of Construction.
The big question is which members of the Likud party will occupy ministerial positions. There are not many such positions left, yet most of the members of the party consider themselves candidates for such positions. Some things are already clear: Yaalon will continue serving as the Minister of Defense, and there is little doubt that Benny Begin will be a minister in the new government. Yisrael Katz and Silvan Shalom will both serve in ministerial capacities. Some say that Silvan Shalom has already announced that if he is not appointed to head the Foreign Ministry, a position that has become vacant due to Avigdor Lieberman’s move to the opposition, he will vote against the government. Netanyahu has plenty to sweat about before next week.
As I finished writing this article, I called Yaakov Margi to ask him to sum up the events of this dramatic day in the halls of government. He whispered in response, “I can’t talk much. I’m at a committee meeting.” Margi is a member of the committee discussing the new law providing for an expansion of the government.
I took advantage of the call to ask him when the law would be brought to the Knesset for its final approval. “On Wednesday,” he said.
THEN WHAT IS SO URGENT THAT YOU HAVE TO SIT AND DISCUSS IT AFTER MIDNIGHT?
“I don’t know,” he confessed. “Ask Elkin.”
HOW DID YOU FEEL AT THE END OF THIS DAY?
“Joyful and apprehensive at the same time. On the one hand, we are happy that we have joined the government, and we hope to rectify all the injustices that were perpetrated against the chareidi community and all the weaker sectors of Israeli society. On the other hand, the people have high hopes and high expectations for this government, and a narrow coalition of 61 mandates doesn’t make our lives easier. If the coalition is not expanded soon, it will be very difficult to function.”
WHY DIDN’T YOU WANT TO BE APPOINTED MINISTER OF RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS AGAIN?
“Let’s leave that discussion for another time,” Margi said.