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Electoral Reform Bill Dead for Now As Knesset Returns It to Committee

The Knesset voted by a comfortable margin Monday to send a controversial electoral reform bill back to committee.

The measure, which provides for the direct election of the prime minister, is opposed by Likud, supported by the opposition Labor Party and has divided the smaller parties of the coalition.

It passed its second reading last week by a single vote and was up for its third and final reading Monday. Instead, the lawmakers voted 60-54 to return the draft legislation to the Likud-controlled Legal Committee, from where it emerged only after strong prodding by Labor.

Committee Chairman Uriel Lynn of Likud provided a letter stating that the bill would go before the plenum for its third reading no later than March 3.

But Lynn’s refusal to read the letter into the Knesset record raised doubts. Advocates of the bill worried that despite the letter, Likud would contrive to keep the legislation buried indefinitely.

The measure probably would have been defeated if voted on Monday, because the Likud Knesset faction was bound by party discipline to oppose it. It was a single Likud dissenter, Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who guided it back to committee, where at least it remains alive.

Netanyahu, who is attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, had been one of Likud’s fastest rising young stars until he clashed with his party over electoral reform.

He was warned by Knesset colleague Ariel Weinstein at a Likud faction meeting Monday that his “future would not be assured in the party” if he did not toe the line.

Netanyahu nevertheless rescued the reform bill with the help of three National Religious Party Knesset members who support it. The Knesset meanwhile struck down a series of opposition no-confidence motions stemming from the deeply troubling poverty statistics released last week by the National Insurance Institute.

Four motions introduced by the Citizens Rights Movement, the Center-Shinui Movement, Mapam and independent Charlie Biton were beaten by a 62-51 vote.

It followed an angry debate in which the opposition factions accused the government of spending billions on settlements in the administered territories at the expense of the swelling ranks of the poor.

Last week, the insurance institute reported that the number of Israelis living below the poverty line in 1990 reached 537,700, representing 16.9 percent of the population.

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