Signs of stress for Knesset coalition after tight Sabbath law vote

A government crisis may be in the offing as the Yisrael Beiteinu party bucks the coalition over a law that would force closure of convenience stores on the Sabbath.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

It took a 12 hour Knesset plenum, ending at 4:30 AM on Tuesday, before the coalition managed to pass the controversial so-called “Grocery store” bill on its first reading. The vote was 59-54 in favor of the legislation that would force the closure of stores on the Sabbath.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties insist that the coalition advance the bill that requires stores to receive permission from the Interior Minister to remain open on Saturdays. Tel Aviv is exempt from the legislation because the Supreme Court recently ruled that the city can allow mini-markets to stay open on the Sabbath.

Throughout the night, the coalition was in a frenzy to line up enough votes to pass the preliminary reading. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party opposed the bill calling it “religious coercion” and a violation of the current status quo on matters of religion and state. Coalition chairman David Bitan of Likud is overwhelmed and distracted by the ongoing corruption investigation against him, making it that much more difficult for Likud and its partners to maintain discipline.

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Prime Minister Netanyahu was forced to drive directly to the Knesset from the airport as he returned from Brussels, and managed to help tip the balance in favor of the bill.

The Joint Arab List actually helped the coalition. Only 9 of its 13 Knesset members voted against, with 4 abstaining because they chose not to take part in votes relating to “Jewish observance.” MK Ahmed Tibi explained votes in favor saying they were punishing the ultra-Orthodox parties for their support of the so-called “Muazzim Bill” that puts limits on the sound level on Muslim calls to prayer from minarets.

Could Sabbath store closure cause coalition’s demise?

Is this the issue that can bring down the coalition? Political pundit Mitchell Barak says no, it is not. Barak told World Israel News (WIN), “Shas is very serious about this issue. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri believes this the ‘bread and butter’ issue for his voters.”

Shas has slipped badly in recent polls indicating that it may not pass the minimum threshold in the next Knesset elections. “Deri is convinced that closing businesses on Shabbat is the issue that will make Shas relevant one again,” Barak said.

Barak also told WIN, “Prime Minister Netanyahu will go along with the ultra-Orthodox on this issue. He knows that his coalition and voters generally support limiting Shabbat commerce, and no one in Likud is ready to challenge the Prime Minister’s viewpoint.”

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Zionist Union Knesset Member Nahman Shai told WIN, “The coalition has lots of problems, but it will survive for a while. There is not a major coalition party ready for elections. I think the only party really ready for elections are Yesh Atid and they are in the opposition. Even my own party, with a new chairman is not ready.”

A ‘major battle’ rages on

Former Yesh Atid Knesset member Dov Lipman says that last night was a major battle that will have ramifications for the coalition. Lipman told WIN, “Liberman cannot sit by and let this law pass because his party is totally opposed to religious coercion. For the time being Netanyahu can hold the coalition together but there is chaos in their ranks, and the government realizes that it may not be able to pass this particular bill.”

According to Lipman, “We in the opposition are optimistic, but we are not yet in a position to force new elections. In my view it’s all about timing and I think Netanyahu will try to hold his coalition together until after 70th anniversary celebrations in May.

Political Scientist Prof. Avraham Diskin from the Hebrew University was less certain that the coalition can ride out the current storm. Diskin told WIN, “There are so many crises in play right now. All kinds. Right now none of the coalition parties want an immediate collapse. But there is an atmosphere of uncertainty. All it will take is for a total of 7 rebels for the government to fall. That is not yet in place.”

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According to Diskin, “Any of three things can cause the coalition to fall. A coalition party forces a crisis because they think their interests are served by elections; Rebels within the Likud may decide they are fed up with party leadership; Netanyahu decides that new elections are his best option. We are not there yet but the atmosphere is definitely moving in that direction.” Diskin put chances of the coalition surviving for the coming months at just over 50 percent.