Israel’s untenable political dysfunctionality exposed in a ridiculous Knesset battle

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A law allocating state funds for student scholarships for some Israeli army veterans was approved by the Knesset in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

This ought to have been a straightforward, widely consensual piece of legislation — the state taking over the funding of a much-needed initiative that was hitherto funded by private donations.

Instead, it became a major partisan battle that underlines how broken our politics has become, and how damaging this is for Israel.

In the lead-up to the vote, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the legislation should be opposed — not on its merits, but because he is doing everything in his power to oust the coalition, including by opposing all government-initiated legislation in order to demonstrate that, having lost their parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his allies can no longer effectively run the country.

Not everybody in Netanyahu’s opposition bloc was comfortable with that stance, being concerned that Likud, in this instance, was opposing a program that directly benefits soldiers when it ought to be fully supportive.

Likud MK Miri Regev, May 24, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The low point of the saga came at a Likud faction meeting last week when, either unaware of or indifferent to the fact that she was being recorded, leading Likud MK Miri Regev declared that there was no room for queasiness if — in the cause of ousting the loathed, ostensibly dangerous coalition — her party and others in the opposition had to vote against legislation they would ordinarily support; no room for such queasiness, she specified, even if that greater goal meant voting against the interests of soldiers, people with disabilities, rape victims and battered women.

Belatedly recognizing the damage done and the potential for more, Netanyahu adjusted his stance — declaring that he and his loyalists would support the legislation, but only if it provided 100 percent funding for the scholarship program, rather than the 66% that the government’s bill, and the previous private funding, had allocated. Rejecting that demand, coalition members noted both that Netanyahu had chosen not to pass this kind of legislation himself when he was prime minister, and that 100% funding was frowned upon by experts since students are more likely to complete their programs if they have a financial stake in their studies.

In the hours before the vote was set to be held, government and opposition remained at loggerheads, with the legislation apparently heading for failure.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the press at the Knesset, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Each side claimed to be savoring a potential victory in the bill’s defeat: The coalition would have presented itself as having tried to do the right thing, but been blocked by an intransigent opposition indifferent to soldiers’ welfare. The opposition would have argued that it had exposed the coalition’s legislative haplessness and reassured the public that, once back in power, it would pass legislation even more beneficial to soldiers.

For all the spinning, however, the bottom line, had the legislation failed, was that combat soldiers who had protected the state would not have gotten state funding for their post-army studies.

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz with IDF soldiers and veterans at an event honoring wounded and disabled IDF troops, in Tel Aviv, November 17, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

This particularly dismal saga has a happy ending. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff determined to extricate the interests of Israeli soldiers from the crushing jaws of political cynicism, proposed an eleventh-hour compromise: At an estimated additional cost of only some NIS 15 million (about $4.5 million), the bill would be amended to cover not two-thirds of tuition costs, but a slightly more generous three-quarters.

Likud and the other Netanyahu loyalists in opposition climbed down Gantz’s ladder and vacated the Knesset plenum rather than opposing the bill, enabling it to become law with a healthy majority. (They couldn’t vote for the law because another opposition party, the mainly Arab Joint List, had formally turned the vote into a no-confidence motion; had pro-Netanyahu MKs voted in favor, they would not only have been backing the scholarships law, but, unthinkably, backing the government.)

The outrageous shenanigans that preceded this successful outcome, however, underline how routinely dysfunctional and bitter Israeli politics has become. Coalition and opposition, ministers and Knesset members, are engaged in relentless self-interested calculation — daily, even hourly, reassessing their own and their parties’ interests, whether in supporting the government, seeking its downfall from within, or expediting its collapse from without. Last week, a Meretz MK quit the coalition in a flurry of complaints, including over Israeli policy regarding Al Aqsa Mosque, sparking days of turmoil before she changed her mind. This week, a Blue and White MK is threatening to vote against the coalition (though not on bills to bring it down) over policies he considers are harming the weak.

To some degree, the lurch from crisis to political crisis has been going on for the past three years, since Israel’s governance entered its ongoing semi-paralysis in which no leader has been able to build a genuinely stable coalition. The reasons for this have been endlessly documented, including by this writer; prominent among them is the fact that there are two irreconcilable majorities in the Knesset — a right-wing ideological majority, and a personal anti-Netanyahu majority.

The longer this dysfunctionality persists, however, the more dangerous for Israel. Our government strains to govern. Our opposition is unremittingly hostile — as opposed to constructively and pointedly critical in areas where criticism is genuinely essential. And in the meantime, the challenges, external and internal, mount up.

Teachers from schools around the country hold a protest, in Tel Aviv, May 22, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Iran is closing in on the bomb. The same police chiefs who appallingly mishandled the Jerusalem funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh are nonetheless confidently asserting their ability to ensure nothing goes awry during Sunday’s Jerusalem Day Flag March through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Our internal have-and have-not divides are widening by the week, with the cost of housing soaring ever further from the reach of ordinary people. Our teachers — a profession long unattractive to many who might excel because of the lousy pay and difficult classroom conditions — are threatening strike action. Our hospital staff, also long since left behind in terms of pay and conditions, are coming under literal, physical attack.

None of these and Israel’s many other challenges would be solved overnight even if we had a stable government and a responsible opposition devoting all their attention to them. But we have nothing of the sort — as so dismally illustrated by the hours and hours and hours wasted on a vicious dispute over a small, important piece of legislation for soldiers that government and opposition both supported.

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