By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Before the end of this week, the Knesset will have passed three important bills: (1) raising the number of votes before a party can gain seats from 2% to 3.15% and other changes in the composition of future governments; (2) obligating ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the army instead of allowing them to hide, as hitherto, behind yeshiva “studies;” (3) requiring a referendum before any land can be ceded, say in a peace treaty.
One or more coalition parties may favor some of these bills and object to others, but by putting them together, all will vote in favor even for those they’re unhappy about to make sure that those they advocate get through. And to do so fast, they’ve also agreed to limit debate. That’s why we know that all three will pass before the end of the week.
Parties not in government realized, therefore, that they couldn’t defeat any of the bills and wouldn’t even have a chance to debate much and/or filibuster. As a result, they formed the most unlikely alliance between groups that are normally at loggerheads: instead of sitting in the chamber and voting against, they’re holding separate meetings in another room where speeches are made to denounce the government tactics while each bill will pass with the 67 (out of 120) votes (to nil) that the coalition can muster.
Each of the bills is likely to harm some of the opposition parties more than others. Thus, for example, raising the minimum threshold before getting Knesset seats may be a good thing for those who want fewer parties and more seats for themselves – like Labor, the largest of the opposition parties – but disastrous for the small parties, especially the Arabs, who may not be able to pass the threshold. But mirroring coalition unity, the opposition has come together to demonstrate that passing the bills without objectors even present in the chamber will demonstrate the unacceptable side of Israeli democracy.
What’s true inside the Knesset may also be true for outside observers. Thus (1) raising the threshold should be welcomed by those who believe that the multiplicity of political parties can give a few parliamentarians enormous power by holding the deciding votes in a coalition government; (2) compelling yeshiva students to serve in the army may be welcomed by liberals, but is strongly opposed e.g., by those who support ultra-Orthodox parties; (3) a referendum may seem a good thing, but the fear is that it’ll be used by those who don’t want to give up West Bank settlements by claiming that vox populi is making it impossible for the government to cede land.
The two sides have been quick to accuse each other: the opposition has said that the government is playing fast and loose with democracy whereas the government has described the opposition parties as childish and petulant because they don’t want to bow to the will of the majority in a democratic and transparent parliamentary system.
For all I know, both sides may be right, but I’m much more concerned that the three bills, though each have many good points, hide more than they reveal: (1) raising the threshold may silence the Left, which normally manifests itself in several small parties: (2) the conscription bill may appear to legislate equality but, in fact, will still exempt most ultra-Orthodox people in one guise or another; (3) the referendum law may become a tool in thwarting a settlement with the Palestinians.
I hope that my fears are unfounded and that each of the three bills will make it easier to govern and make peace. The future will tell.