In fresh blow to coalition, Blue and White MK renews boycott of coalition votes

In the latest crisis to hit the beleaguered coalition, Blue and White MK Michael Biton’s office said Sunday that he plans to stop voting for the majority of the coalition’s legislative agenda, compounding the government’s growing difficulties in passing laws.

Starting Monday, Biton will only support the coalition against no-confidence motions and to renew politically sensitive legislation that applies parts of Israeli law to settlers in the West Bank. He is expected to be absent from the plenum for other government votes.

“I won’t vote for no-confidence motions, I won’t topple the government, I will vote for the West Bank law, because it is significant for the existence of the state,” Biton told The Times of Israel. “The rest of the bills can wait.”

Biton is also expected to continue operating the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli is pushing reforms to the pricing structure of public transportation, eliminating pre-payment discounts and unifying fares across the country. Michaeli has said that fare prices widely vary not due to need, but rather due to past political influence. Biton, a former mayor of the town of Yeruham, claims that the reforms hurt less affluent Israelis and residents of towns far from the country’s power centers.

“If the poor have to wait for the transportation minister, then new bills can also wait. They’re not urgent,” Biton said.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli attends the opening ceremony of the Transportation Survey in Tel Aviv on May 24, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In addition to gripes over the content of the reforms, Biton said he objected to the process through which the Transportation Ministry developed the reforms without the Economic Affairs Committee’s oversight.

“For over a year,” Biton said in an interview last Wednesday, the Transportation Ministry “wasn’t responding and wasn’t respectful to members of Knesset. We raised many issues before the ministry, but they did not respond.”

Biton also claimed that the Transportation Ministry actively cut his committee out of the process.

“They were even hiding information from the committee. We discovered that they were planning some reforms. So we called them to tell us about them and they said, ‘We don’t know yet.’ And a few minutes after the end of that meeting, they announced the reform,” Biton said of one of the events that triggered his frustration.

A source close to Biton told The Times of Israel that he and Michaeli have not been in contact since his protest began. A spokesman for Michaeli did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In protest over these reforms — and to a lesser extent, planned agricultural reforms — Biton shuttered his committee three weeks ago and announced that he would stop voting with the coalition, with the exception of blocking no-confidence motions.

Biton was quickly lured back into the political alliance by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, after the prime minister promised the Blue and White lawmaker that he would look into the transportation issue. Biton gave the government leaders a two-week timeline for addressing his issues, which expires on Monday.

Biton last met with Bennett on Wednesday, after which Biton said he was hopeful that the matter would be resolved.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on June 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The bid to renew the application of Israel’s criminal law and some of its civil law to settlers — which Biton still intends to support — strikes at significant ideological differences heretofore intermittently papered over by the cross-spectrum coalition. As such, it has blossomed into an existential test for the coalition even though the measure has been continuously in place and renewed every five years since first enacted in 1967.

In the run-up to its failed vote last Monday, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said that the vote would prove if the deadlocked coalition wants to continue existing.

In a majority-less coalition of only 60 members against a determined opposition, the opposition of two Arab lawmakers within the coalition — Ra’am’s Mazen Ghanaim and Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi — was more than sufficient to sink the bill. As a result, there have been calls from across the coalition’s eclectic political spectrum for the two to resign their seats and make way for politicians amenable to coalition discipline.

Meanwhile, right-wing and pro-settler MK Nir Orbach is reportedly on the verge of abandoning the coalition ship, requiring heavy-handed intervention from Bennett, who leads the Yamina party of which Orbach is a member.

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