Political observers call passage of ‘mini-markets bill’ a ‘strategic mistake’ for Netanyahu’s Likud

Coalition manages to muster a one-vote victory to pass controversial bill that’s expected to result in the closure of many convenience stores on Shabbat.  

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

It was a nail-biter in the Knesset, but when all was said and done, the Knesset bill to shutter mini-markets on Shabbat passed into law by the narrowest of margins. After a 15-hour opposition filibuster, and following threats by the prime minister to dissolve the coalition if the bill did not pass, it squeaked through its second and third readings early Tuesday morning by a vote of 58 to 57.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party and its leader, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, championed the bill while threatening to bring down the government if Shas did not get its way. Deri got his way and has gained personal control over which stores are allowed to remain open on the Jewish day of rest. He now has the power to approve or reject local ordinances on the matter.

The coalition was severely tested after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party announced at the outset that his strongly secular, right-wing nationalist party could not support the legislation. That meant five votes less for the 66-member coalition. Liberman’s party opposed the bill, calling it “religious coercion” and a violation of the current status quo on matters of religion and state. Four Yisrael Beiteinu lawmakers voted against the measure. Former Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset Member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who is now independent, voted ‘no’ as well. A key vote that could have caused the legislation to fail was that of Immigration Minister Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beiteinu, who chose to abstain rather than vote against the bill and risk losing her ministerial post.

Others who bucked the coalition and absented themselves rather than vote ‘no’ were the Likud’s Sharren Haskel and Kulanu’s Tali Ploskov. Coalition MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) and opposition MK Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union) were absent from the vote due to the recent deaths of close relatives.

Coalition leaders forced to compromise

Reaching the bare minimum needed to pass the bill required some compromising. Coalition leaders were forced to reach an agreement Sunday to weaken the legislation by agreeing to an amendment that exempts convenience stores that are attached to gas stations from being included in the closures. The law will not affect the city of Tel Aviv, which Israel’s High Court recently ruled could pass its own bylaws to decide which stores could remain open on Shabbat.

There were some technical hitches along the way as the electronic screen failed to record the vote cast by United Torah Judaism’s MK Yisrael Eichler. The opposition came close to toppling the legislation at about 1 a.m. when they had a temporary majority in the chamber. In an attempt to catch the coalition off guard, the opposition tried forcing an immediate vote. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked saved the day for the coalition by rising to the podium and delivering a long address of about 40 minutes, during which she read from the Declaration of Independence. While she spoke, the coalition managed to restore its majority in the hall.

In the days leading up to the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned members of his Likud party to toe the party line or risk bringing down the government. “Whoever votes against the mini-markets bill is in favor of toppling the government,” Netanyahu said during a closed-door Likud faction meeting on Monday.

The vote on the ‘mini-markets bill’ was originally slated for last week but pushed off when the death of Likud MK Yehudah Glick’s wife forced him to miss the plenum, which left the coalition without a clear majority.

Political Science Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld from IDC Herzliya described the decision by Likud to back the bill as “a strategic mistake.” Wolfsfeld told World Israel News (WIN), “It’s not clear if many mini-markets will actually close because of this bill, but it’s bound to have consequences for Likud.”

According to Wolfsfeld, “If convenience stores in places like Herzliya where I live are forced to close, then some voters will abandon Likud.” Disgruntled secular Likud voters could vote for the centrist Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, who has stood strongly for pluralism in Israeli society, he said. Voters could also chose the more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, which resisted coalition pressure and voted against the bill with the exception of Landver, who abstained.

‘Coalition opportunism at its worst’

Political pundit Mitchell Barak from Keevoon Strategies also predicts that the mini-market bill will “cause some in Likud to abandon their base.” Barak says rank-and-file Likud does not want to see its generally secular beliefs sold out to the ultra-orthodox Shas.

Barak told WIN, “This is coalition opportunism at its worst. Many Likud voters don’t want this. A growing percentage of Likud voters are traditional, but they are against imposing their Shabbat observance on others.”

“This is a step toward Israel becoming a democratically elected theocracy,” Barak said.