Israeli Knesset faces tough task over budget

The Knesset is expected to review some controversial draft laws but the budget will prove most challenging.

    Israeli Knesset faces tough task over budget
    One of the most controversial bills would allow Jews to pray at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif [AFP]

    Tel Aviv, Israel - The Israeli parliament reconvened on October 26 for what many observers say will be a largely fruitless session, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political foes devoted their energy to political manoeuvring ahead of expected early elections.

    On paper, at least, the Knesset will have a busy few months. Lawmakers are set to introduce bills on a range of controversial topics, from Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to the identity of the state.

    Most of these will be purely for show - get-out-the-vote tactics ahead of an election that could occur as early as next year, well ahead of the end of the Knesset's term in late 2017.

    Recently, Netanyahu has found himself in a vulnerable position: The brief surge in his popularity after the latest Gaza war has predictably faded, and he faces growing challenges both from within his party, Likud, as well as several right-wing opponents.

    And with lawmakers focused on political intrigue, it is a far more prosaic issue, the budget, which is likely to prove the winter's real legislative battle.

    Six weeks of fighting in Gaza racked up at least $2bn in direct costs, according to Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and caused extensive indirect damage to the Israeli economy; the tourism sector alone lost nearly $600m.


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    A Knesset that was elected largely to address socioeconomic issues now finds itself forced to slash billions from social services to fund an ever-larger military budget.

    "Without the budget, the government crumbles," said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute. "But beyond that budget, not much will be done … the character of this coalition is that it doesn't have a clear agenda."

    The Knesset's summer term was unproductive, overshadowed by the war in Gaza and the kidnapping of three Israeli settlers in June. "A session that ended in nothing," Yitzhak Cohen, an MK from the Shas party, complained on the last day before recess.

    Lawmakers shelved a number of controversial initiatives, including a bill that would have allowed the prison service to force-feed hunger-striking detainees.

    Netanyahu promised to introduce a Basic Law, akin to a constitutional amendment, declaring Israel a "Jewish state", but the proposal went nowhere.

    These items could be back on the agenda this winter.

    One of the first issues before the Knesset will be the fate of the Holot detention centre, a prison in the Negev desert where Israel has held thousands of African asylum seekers.

    The High Court last month ordered it shut, saying the open-ended detentions "violate human dignity".

    Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar suggested that the government simply ignore the ruling and several MKs are working up a bill that would allow the legislature to override the High Court with a simple majority vote.

    Israeli history proves that the most problematic issue is always the budget. That's when the [Knesset] members start to be cruel to each other.

    - Tal Schneider, political analyst

    Beyond that, the Knesset will consider the usual slate of items concerning Israel's identity.

    Miri Regev, a member of the Likud party, submitted a bill that would allow Jews to pray at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

    Jordan, which has guardianship over the plateau, demanded clarifications from the Israeli government, fearing that the bill would upset the status quo and lead to unrest. Netanyahu opposes the bill, though, making it unlikely to pass.

    Deputy Speaker Moshe Feiglin, meanwhile, plans to introduce a bill that would strip Arabic of its status as an official language. Lawmakers said it would "contribute to social cohesion" and "build a collective identity".

    The move to demote Arabic has become something of an annual tradition in the Knesset; past versions have not garnered much support.

    In response, Ahmed al-Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, is drafting a Basic Law to guarantee "recognition of Arabs as a national minority".

    And Yoni Chetboun, a member of the national-religious Jewish Home party, plans to introduce a separate bill declaring a national holiday on Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the 1967 Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem.

    The day is marked each year by racist and nationalist demonstrations, with mostly young Israelis marching through the Old City and harassing Palestinian residents.

    "All of these are mainly for domestic political purposes, for politicians to signal to their base that they're dealing with these identity-based issues," Plesner said. "But nothing concrete will get done."

    Instead, the real work will be on the budget. To avoid raising taxes after the Gaza war, Finance Minister Yair Lapid raised the deficit and imposed sharp cuts on ministries.

    Because of that, "we will be able to bear most of the costs of the operation within the 2014 budget" without raising taxes, Lapid told reporters.

    Next year's spending plan leaves the situation largely unchanged, save for a $1.6bn boost to the military.

    All of this is a sharp reversal for Lapid, who was elected on a platform of helping the middle class. It is likely to meet sharp resistance in the Knesset.

    Some lawmakers want to steer more money into socioeconomic projects. Others, like finance committee Nissan Slomiansky, have accused Lapid of fudging the numbers, arguing that the deficit will be much larger than projected.

    "Israeli history proves that the most problematic issue is always the budget," said Tal Schneider, a political analyst. "That's when the [Knesset] members start to be cruel to each other."

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    Lapid could simply try not to pass a spending plan: If the Knesset does not approve one by March 31, 2015, it will automatically head for early elections.

    But a 2015 ballot, though possible, may not be in anyone's best interest. Various polls now put Netanyahu's approval ratings between 32 percent and 52 percent, down from the mid-80s in July.

    Most Israelis do not think they won the Gaza war, and they oppose the ceasefire with Hamas.

    The lower ratings, though, are not major drops from Netanyahu's pre-war levels, when he often polled in the 30s and 40s.

    Even though Netanyahu is not overwhelmingly popular, in Israel's fractious political system he still commands the broadest support: A Haaretz-Dialog poll found that 42 percent of respondents thought him the best choice for prime minister.

    The second-most popular candidate, with 20 percent of the vote, was "I don't know." 

    His main challengers from the right, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, do not yet have the backing required to take Netanyahu's job. The prime minister has recently tried to woo back the ultra-Orthodox parties, who were cast out of the coalition last year.

    On October 21, he announced his opposition to a bill that would make it easier to convert to Judaism, a key demand for the religious bloc.

    In the end, a relatively unpopular politician who is often derided for his lack of vision may yet hold on to his job for the foreseeable future.

    "There's no accountability for Netanyahu," Schneider said. "People only see him as responsible for diplomacy and security … the economy is terrible, the cost of living has gotten much higher over the past few years, but he doesn't suffer any consequences."


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