The Knesset gets back to work

The most pressing issue—the state budget; the most consequential—judicial reform.

The Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
The Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 22, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The Knesset’s summer session began on Sunday after a month-long recess, and will run until July 30. Topping the agenda are passing a state budget, judicial reform, an updated ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, conscription bill and the establishment of a National Guard.

1. Budget: Passing the government’s draft two-year, trillion-shekel budget through Israel’s parliament will be the first order of business. Failure to pass a budget by May 29 would trigger the Knesset’s automatic dissolution and an early election. The Netanyahu coalition is focused on the task as polls show it dropping from 64 seats to just 46 seats in the 120-seat Knesset if an election were held now.

The Cabinet approved the draft budget in February. It went to the Knesset as two bills: the State Budget for Fiscal Year 2023 (610 billion shekels, or about $168 billion), and the State Budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (653 billion shekels, or about $180 billion). Both bills passed their first readings in the Knesset plenum on March 28 by a vote of 41 to 32.

However, to become law bills must pass three votes. The second and third (final) readings in the Knesset plenum are to take place during this session.

To ensure things go smoothly, relevant Knesset committees met even during the recess. Hoping to avoid a last-minute opposition filibuster, the government is expected to move the budget forward a week ahead of the deadline.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday: “It is precisely during days of economic slowdown and global inflation that Israel can—and must—leap forward. We did this during the coronavirus. We did so during previous global economic slowdowns. And we will do so this time as well. We will bring economic stability. We will expand competition.”

2. Judicial reform: A legislative package designed to rein in Israel’s Supreme Court is the most far-reaching of those the coalition hopes to pass. The government seeks to undo decades of what it views as creeping judicial overreach, which has reached the point where the Supreme Court is a parallel source of authority increasingly at odds with Israel’s elected government and legislature.

While several bills related to judicial reform passed their first reading in the Knesset’s last session, Netanyahu put the reform legislation on hold at the end of March to give extra-parliamentary negotiations a chance to play out.

The prime minister’s decision came amid weeks of anti-reform protests, civil disobedience and a general strike sparked by his dismissal (since withdrawn) of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who on March 26 broke with the government to urge that legislation be postponed for the sake of national unity and military morale.

“We have a fundamental disagreement [with the opposition parties] on the matter of reform,” Netanyahu said at this Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. “[W]e are making every effort to resolve this debate through dialogue. With goodwill by both sides, I am convinced that it is possible to reach agreements—and I give this my full backing.”

It’s not yet clear what a compromise agreement will look like. Talks renewed this week at the President’s Residence following the holidays.

Among Netanyahu’s coalition partners, passing judicial reform is a priority. Between 200,000 and 600,000 protesters (estimates vary) rallied on Thursday in Jerusalem in favor of the legislation. On Saturday evening, roughly 110,000 opponents of reform demonstrated in Tel Aviv, marking the 17th straight week of their protests. Protesters also gathered in Haifa, Kfar Saba and Netanya. Organizers claimed 430,000 rallied nationwide.

Anti-reform organizers said they would return to acts of civil disobedience on what they term “days of disruption,” following a hiatus after Passover and various national holidays, including Israel’s Independence Day.

3. Haredi military conscription: The coalition’s haredi partners hope to settle the issue of conscription for the sector’s young men. Two haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, had initially demanded that draft-related legislation pass before they vote to approve the state budget. However, according to Israeli media reports on Sunday, they agreed to a request by Netanyahu for a delay.

Ultra-Orthodox leadership discourages military service, seeing it as a distraction from Torah study. In 2021, 87% of haredi 18-year-olds didn’t enlist, while 86% of non-haredi 18-year-olds did so. This has caused sharp friction within Israeli society, with the majority dissatisfied that the burden of service is not distributed equally.

The proposed legislation would lower the age at which haredi men need to obtain deferments from 26 to 23 (or younger—the exact age is still being negotiated). Lowering the age has less to do with the military than with the economy. Ultra-Orthodox men are staying in yeshivah longer out of fear of conscription. The Finance Ministry, looking to the national economy, would like to see haredi men enter the workforce sooner and have time to study for better-paying, more productive jobs before marriage. The ministry is pushing for deferments to be required only up to the age of 21. The IDF has so far agreed to 23.

The bill also includes provisions to significantly increase the pay of combat soldiers, reduce the length of time noncombat soldiers serve to two years, and let the government set haredi draft quotas.

An existing National Service Law is set to expire on July 31. Initially passed in 2014, and amended under haredi pressure in 2015, it set annual allotments of haredi draftees to the IDF and punished yeshivot that didn’t meet those allotments. In September 2017, the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, struck down the law, deeming the exemptions discriminatory against those who serve.

4. National Guard: The Cabinet on April 2 approved the creation of a National Guard. Its responsibilities are being worked out in committee with recommendations to be submitted to the Cabinet by early July.

The establishment of a National Guard was agreed upon by the previous Netanyahu government and in June 2022 by the government led by Naftali Bennett. What now adds controversy is National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s demand that the National Guard answer directly to his ministry and not to the police.

Critics have labeled it Ben-Gvir’s “private militia.” Anti-government protesters have expressed fear it will be turned against them. Ben-Gvir has dismissed the concerns, saying the Guard will deal with national emergencies such as the violence in mixed Jewish-Arab cities when Israeli Arabs rioted in common cause with Hamas in May 2021. The Guard will also deal with border issues.

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