Israeli coalition’s first big legislative test

The new Israeli governing coalition had a major stress test in the early morning hours of 6 July. It came through looking really strong! it failed utterly!

On the one hand, the bill in question went down to defeat, 59-59. The bill was to extend and modify an existing law that expires at midnight. So that’s pretty embarrassing, especially when a critical lost vote was a member of the prime minister’s party, Amichai Chikli of Yamina. Chikli had also voted against the government itself in the investiture vote a few weeks ago, when the government was approved, 60-59. In the vote on this bill, instead of one Ra’am MK abstaining, as in the investiture, two did. On the other hand, the compromise that got the 59 votes shows the parties within the coalition are able to strike deals on contentious issues that divide them on some core principles.

Before I go any further, an important disclaimer: I am NOT interested in debate on the substance of the law in question, other than as it pertains to the specific compromises the governing partners made, or might yet make.

The bill would extend (for six months) an existing law that mostly bars family residency status in the case of Israeli citizens who marry a Palestinian. (Administrative exceptions can be made, and have been.) In addition, the bill would have established a ministerial committee to look for a longer-term solution (in other words, a classic case of can-kicking). It also would have led to the immediate regularization of the status of some 1,600 current families (the precise number that would have been affected has been a matter of some dispute). The existing law was originally passed in 2003 and has been extended annually ever since. In other words, Likud and its Haredi allies have regularly approved of the extension, but suddenly finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of opposition, they decided not to offer any votes, despite their substantive support for the law that is about to expire. Thus the coalition was forced to do what coalitions do–seek compromise among its own members.

The Yamina dissenter, Chikli, made a statement following the vote, and it is worth quoting the Times of Israel extensively in reference to his statement:

After the vote, Chikli said his decision to block the extension was due to the compromise deal: “Tonight we received proof of the problematic nature of a government that doesn’t have a distinct Zionist majority — one that starts the night with a law extension for a year and ends it with an extension for half a year, that starts with 1,500 permits and ends with over 3,000.

Israel needs a functioning Zionist government, not a mishmash that depends on Ra’am and Meretz votes,” Chikli said.

He later added that had the original extension motion gone up for a vote — “without capitulating to Meretz and Ra’am” — he would have supported it.

On the one hand, his point is principled. He does not like the compromise, and he is consistent in having opposed the government’s very formation and now opposing its policy. On the other hand, he still is a member of a governing party, and he had said at the time that he would still support the government in the Knesset despite his vote against its formation. 

This morning there are reports of calls from within Yamina to formally punish Chikli for his dissent. If they declare him a deserter, they can prevent his running for reelection with any existing party. However, that is a real dilemma for the party and Prime Minister Bennet. Burning bridges with him (he’d be entitled to remain in the Knesset) would make the coalition even more dependent on Ra’am, as only with three votes from that party could the coalition muster 60 votes to outvote its 59 opponents. So this is quite a test not only of the coalition, but of Yamina as a party that can maintain discipline.

Why do I say this could be a success for the coalition? Because it showed it is capable of threading the needle and arriving at a compromise. Initially, Meretz had said it was completely opposed to an extension of the law. In response, Interior Minister Ayalet Shaked of Yamina had threatened to strike a deal with Likud on a Basic Law on immigration, which surely would result in a “permanent” policy that Meretz would dislike even more. (It is not clear if Likud was sincere in willing to do this.) So then the Arab member of the Meretz delegation, Isawwi Frej, proposed a compromise six-month extension and a committee to consider individual cases on humanitarian grounds. This served as the basis of the deal that went before the Knesset, and all Meretz members voted in favor.

As Ra’am was bargaining over a proposal that could offer relief to some of its own constituents, one of its MKs denounced the law as “racist and anti-democratic” and said he would never vote for it or abstain. This was Wahid Taha, who ended up not being one of the abstainers. He voted for it, saying that the government agreed “to reconsider all requests” for citizenship of Palestinians who are married to Israelis.

In the end, the whole process of striking a deal proved that the members of the government want their coalition to work. They made a difficult compromise. On the other hand, they showed they may not even be able to count on 60 votes, even when they strike such a delicate compromise.

Supposedly, the bill is going to come back before the Knesset again tonight. It is not clear (to me) if there is some further concession or other persuasion that would get one of the Ra’am abstainers to vote for, or if Chikli would succumb to the threat of discipline.