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Israel’s diverse coalition government loses its majority

Apr 9, 2022 | AIJAC staff

A flyer for Naftali's Bennett's Yamina party in last year's election - in the end, it was his own party, whose candidates were handpicked by Bennett, that has been the Israeli PM's Achilles heel (Photo: Shutterstock, Roman Yanushevsky)
A flyer for Naftali's Bennett's Yamina party in last year's election - in the end, it was his own party, whose candidates were handpicked by Bennett, that has been the Israeli PM's Achilles heel (Photo: Shutterstock, Roman Yanushevsky)

Update from AIJAC

 

04/22 #01

 

On Wednesday, Israel’s ideologically diverse eight-party governing coalition lost its slim majority, thanks to the shock defection of Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman of PM Naftali Bennett’s own Yamina (“rightward”) party. This Update looks at what happened, why, and what might happen next.

Meanwhile, overnight there was another terror attack in Israel, when a gunman opened fire outside a pub in Tel Aviv, killing two people and injuring eight. It was the fourth major attack in a terror wave in Israel that has killed 13 people over the past two and half weeks. AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro has collected everything you need to know about the attack here.

This Update leads with an excellent backgrounder on Silman’s defection from the government from BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. It explains the ostensible dispute over kosher food at hospitals during the upcoming Passover holiday which Silman says triggered her decision, and the difficult situation the Government, now with only 60 seats in the 120 seat Knesset, is now in. However, it also provides analysis indicating why the government is nonetheless unlikely to collapse in the near term, and may well survive until at least March of next year, despite losing its majority. For all the basic facts about where Israeli politics now is in the wake of this week’s development,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz looking at the various scenarios of what could happen in Israeli politics in the coming months. The most likely scenario is a new election called sometime soon – but even if that happens, it is unclear who would be interim Prime Minister in the meantime, given clauses in the coalition agreement which mean Foreign Minister Yair Lapid likely should get the job. Pfeffer also canvasses various other possible scenarios, such as the creation of an alternative government, with either Defence Minister Benny Gantz, former PM Binyamin Netanyahu, or possibly another member of Netanyahu’s Likud party getting the premiership. For this solid look at where Israeli politics might go from here, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz looks at how the governing coalition reached this point. He argues that the issue of kosher food in hospitals is only a pretext, and it is the underlying politics, and the great discomfort and community pressure experienced by right-wing members of the current governing coalition, that is really at fault. Katz also alleges that PM Naftali Bennett contributed to the current situation by focussing too heavily on the international scene and neglecting his domestic base. For all of Katz’s useful insights into the politics behind the Israeli coalition’s major setback, CLICK HERE.

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Stability of Israel’s coalition in jeopardy

BICOM, April 6, 2022


Former Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman of PM Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)

What happened: Coalition Chairwoman Idit Silman (Yamina) announced this morning that she is leaving the governing coalition. 

  • She said she is resigning from the coalition on a matter of principle, citing “deep ideological differences” with the left-wing parties.
  • The trigger was Meretz’s Health Minister Horowitz’s decision that will allow hametz (food that is not kosher for Passover) to be brought inside hospitals during Passover.
  • She said she could no longer “lend a hand to the damage to the Jewish character” of Israel. She called for a right-wing government to be formed instead.
  • Horowitz said in response that he had merely said that hospitals needed to uphold the High Court of Justice’s ruling, to respect the entire public by maintaining freedom of religion, freedom from religion, equality and human dignity, without any coercion.
  • The resignation was supported by former Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition Benjamin Netanyahu, who congratulated Silman on her decision. He thanked her “in the name of many people in Israel that waited for this moment … I call on everyone who was elected with the votes of the nationalist bloc to join Idit and return home, you will be received with all due respect and open arms”.

Context: The decision could have dramatic consequences for the coalition, which has now lost its narrow majority and the Knesset is finely balanced 60-60.

  • The unprecedented rainbow coalition that includes two left-wing, two centrist, three right-wing parties and an Islamic Party has so far survived 10 months largely because it prioritised social and economic consensus issues.


Israel’s eight-party “rainbow coalition” Government, established ten months ago, now has only 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and will likely have great difficulty advancing its legislative agenda. (Photo: Avi Ohaion. Israeli Government Press Office)

  • Without a majority, the coalition will be unlikely to advance its legislative agenda, or pass the next budget unless it receives support from the Arab Joint List in the opposition.
  • The budget issue is less pressing as the next budget does need to be passed for another eleven months.
  • However, any decision to co-opt the support of the Joint List could further alienate other right-wing coalition members and encourage them to join Silman.
  • The government can only be replaced (without a general election) if it has a constructive majority of 61 and an agreed alternative candidate for prime minister. The Joint List are not expected to support the right-wing opposition parties to form a new government.
  • However, the opposition only needs one more rebel within the coalition, to tilt the balance and dissolve the current Knesset and force new elections.
  • This has been the favoured approach by Netanyahu, to target vulnerable right-wing members of the coalition, from within Yamina, New Hope and even Gantz’s Blue and White Party.
  • According to the bylaws of the Knesset, if another member of Yamina rebels, then together with Silman and (the other party rebel) Chikli, then three MKs will reach the threshold (a third of a faction) to formally break away to form an independent faction. This is the only route that will allow those specific MKs to stand for re-election.

Looking ahead: There is no imminent danger of the government’s collapse, as the Knesset is formally on recess for another five weeks.

  • The dramatic news appears to have caught Prime Minister Naftali Bennett off guard, who has cancelled his meetings this morning to focus on the political crisis.  As well as meeting with his advisers, he is expected to discuss the political crisis with alternate prime minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
  • Despite the recess, the Knesset plenum will convene today for a special session, at the request of 25 opposition MKs in order to discuss the wave of terror.

 


Israel’s political bombshell: Bennett survival, Bibi comeback, or elections?

 

Israel’s ruling coalition just lost its majority in the Knesset, but Netanyahu is still far from getting his own majority to replace it. What does the latest drama mean for Bennett, Lapid, Gantz and other key players?

Anshel Pfeffer

Haaretz. Apr. 6, 2022


Israel PM Naftali Bennett and his cabinet – despite losing its majority, there is a good chance his improbable coalition can hang on for a while longer (Photo: Haim Zach, Israeli Government Press Office). 

Key takeaways on Israel’s political crisis:

  • The ruling coalition no longer enjoys a majority in the Knesset, but neither does the opposition. The two sides are deadlocked at 60 lawmakers each.
  • The government’s standing took a serious hit, but its downfall is still not guaranteed and will require complicated political manoeuvres.
  • The government can survive, for now, if there are no more defectors.
  • Dissolving the Knesset and taking Israel to new elections is likelier than Netanyahu securing a majority in the current Knesset.

“Every day this crazy coalition existed was a miracle,” said a senior representative of one of the coalition parties who was deeply involved in the negotiations 10 months ago that led to the formation of the Bennett-Lapid government, upon receiving the news that MK Idit Silman (Yamina) had announced she was leaving. “At one point or another, something was going to happen to make it lose its majority. It was inevitable.”

Few gave this unprecedented coalition of right-wing nationalists, centrists, leftists and Islamists much chance of survival. In retrospect, the fact that it held on to its majority for nine months and 24 days is nothing less than remarkable. And even after losing its majority, it’s still there, at least for now.

What caused the crisis? 

Silman was always one of the coalition’s weakest links. She was a young, inexperienced politician living in a religious-Zionist community where she and her family have been constantly bombarded for the past 10 months with intense criticism for serving in an “anti-Jewish” government.

Toward the end, even her husband Shmulik was openly conspiring to engineer the split. He is reported to have agreed with Benjamin Netanyahu’s agents that his wife will receive a spot on Likud’s candidate slate in the next election and serve as health minister should Netanyahu form a government. The only surprising element in Silman’s departure is the trigger.

The expectation was that the government’s downfall would be triggered by a security crisis, such as another war in Gaza, which the United Arab List could not support. In the end, the excuse was a silly argument with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz over the most obscure matter: the adherence of hospitals to the High Court of Justice ruling which prevents security guards from searching the bags of visitors for hametz during Passover.

The ruling is over a year old and was already in effect last Passover, when Netanyahu was still in office. Silman would have probably preferred a more respectable reason than whether cancer patients would be able to eat a sandwich, but that’s what she had to work with. Now the coalition will have to work without her.

Can it?

The immediate answer is that the government can, at least for now, survive without a majority, as long as there are no additional defectors. Having passed a state budget, the government on paper has another 11 months before the deadline for passing the next budget arrives in March 2023.

Eleven months is a long time in Israeli politics, and if the remaining 60 members of the coalition stick together, that is now the realistic life expectancy of this government. Of course, without a majority, it will be unable to pass any serious legislation, but lame-duck governments are no rarity.

Even in the event of further defections, most likely from Naftali Bennett’s dwindling Yamina party, the government could theoretically soldier on with a minority until there’s a majority of 61 lawmakers prepared to vote for an alternative government or for dissolving the Knesset and holding another election – Israel’s fifth since April 2019.

At this point, there are several possible scenarios…

Transitional government, with whom at the top? 

The first scenario is that the government survives, despite Silman’s defection, until its next major test – either the 2023 budget deadline or some other crisis over the next 11 months. After all, it has managed to get this far, against all expectations.

For any other scenario to take place, there would first have to be more defections. If there are, the next likely outcome is a majority voting for new elections. However, there’s a major question mark looming over this scenario: Who gets to serve as the prime minister of the transition government in the election period and until a new government is formed, if one can be formed, afterward?

Under the terms of Bennett and Yair Lapid’s coalition agreement, if at least two lawmakers who originally belonged to one of the two designated “blocs” in the coalition vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset, then the leader of the other bloc gets to serve as interim prime minister.

Since Silman was a member of the “Bennett bloc” and any other defector is likely to come from that bloc as well, this means that should they then join the opposition in dissolving the Knesset, Lapid automatically will replace Bennett as prime minister and remain in office until a new government is formed – which, as we’ve seen in recent years, can be a very long time.

This seems a likely scenario. Yet while the right-wing opposition will be happy to humiliate Bennett, whom they see as a traitor, and make him the shortest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, there are others in the Knesset who would not like to see Lapid’s status enhanced by having him elevated to the position of prime minister right before a new election.

Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz, the other parties of the center-left (technically the “Lapid bloc”), would not be so happy to see him get another boost, which could marginalize them further. It sounds unlikely at this point, but it’s not out of the question that a member of one of these parties, as a preemptive move, would vote in favor of a dissolution bill, before a second member of the “Bennett bloc” does. In this scenario, an early election would be held with Bennett staying on as interim prime minister.

Can Netanyahu become prime minister in the current Knesset?

As leader of the opposition, Netanyahu would of course love to turn the tables and get back into his previous office. But he needs 61 MKs to form his new government. With Silman’s defection, the opposition currently numbers 60, but six of those MKs are from the Joint List who will never support Netanyahu, leaving him in practice with only 54. While more defections could happen, it’s very hard to see as many as seven members of the current coalition overcoming all the bad blood between them and Netanyahu’s Likud. Without another election, a Netanyahu government, therefore, is not a very likely scenario.


Former PM and current Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu has welcomed Silman’s defection, but it still appears very unlikely he can return to the premiership without new elections (Photo: Flickr, Creator: Jolanda Flubacher, Credit: swiss-image.ch)

Can anyone else form a government?

At this point, the best chances would seem to be with Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. He’s a member of the coalition, but openly despises both Bennett and Lapid. Since the formation of the government, he has worked to keep his channels open to key parts of the opposition who won’t have anything to do with Bennett.

Could Gantz entice opposition parties to join a government he leads, while persuading enough of those currently in the coalition to reach a majority? It would be an intricate feat of political engineering that Gantz is unlikely to be capable of pulling off himself, but it is still a possible scenario.

One example would be to get the ultra-Orthodox parties, some of whose members are already openly speculating about joining a government not necessarily led by Netanyahu, to join. Their price of entry could be getting rid of their nemesis, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who would then be banished to the opposition with the rest of his Yisrael Beiteinu party.

In such a scenario, they would still have to stomach sitting with Lapid and Bennett, but neither of them would be prime minister so it could possibly fly. Would they agree to break off their Bibi-shackles? Would Lapid and Bennett go along just to remain in government and keep Netanyahu out? Can Gantz pull it off? It seems near impossible, but stranger coalitions have been formed in this Knesset.

Another Likud PM? 

A third possible candidate for forming a government in this Knesset would be an unspecified Likud member who is not Netanyahu. There are two things going for this scenario. First, Likud is by far the largest party in the Knesset, so it makes mathematical sense for it to be the base of a new majority.

Second, if Netanyahu is not prime minister, the right-wing and centrist MKs who previously vetoed another Likud government will no longer have an excuse to do so. But for such an outcome, Netanyahu would have to relinquish the leadership at least temporarily – something he is unlikely to do without signing a plea bargain in his corruption case.

For now, the likeliest scenario is a return to the situation that existed over much of 2019-2021 when the government was paralyzed, without a majority to legislate and with new elections forever looming. Just as Netanyahu was during that period, Bennett is currently in office but not in power.

 


Politics is the problem in Bennett’s coalition, not hametz – opinion

Idit Silman claimed that she was resigning from the coalition because she could not support a government that allowed hametz in hospitals.

By YAAKOV KATZ

Jerusalem Post, APRIL 7, 2022

Fifteen years ago, on the fourth day of Pesach, our second daughter was born at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

My mother came the next day to visit, and of course, being a Jewish grandmother, wanted to bring some home-cooked food for us to eat. But it wasn’t that simple. Guards at the entrance were checking bags and demanding that all food be left outside, to avoid hametz entering the compound. Did it make a difference that my mother’s food was hametz-free? Nope. The guards had no way of knowing, so all food was banned (I won’t reveal exactly how, but in the end, we managed to eat the food).

I was reminded of this story on Wednesday, when coalition whip Idit Silman stunned Prime Minister Naftali Bennett first thing in the morning and quit his coalition, taking with her the government’s one-vote Knesset majority.

On paper, Silman claimed that she could not support a government that was going to allow hametz into hospitals. She warned that the decision – handed down by the High Court – was going to undermine the State of Israel’s Jewish character.

While Silman could not have had it more wrong – it is, in fact, religious coercion that is undermining Israel’s Jewish character – that is beside the point. Her claim was simply false grandstanding. If she really cared about hametz in hospitals, then she would have met with the Health Ministry and found a compromise that allows people to retain civil liberties while not harming the feelings of observant Jews.

No, the reason she bolted the coalition was the same reason other members of her Yamina Party have done so, or are considering doing so: they find it hard to sit in a government in which they have had to forfeit their right-wing ideology.

Silman is not alone. It is also why MK Amichai Chikli left the coalition when it was formed, and why MK Nir Orbach and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked have repeatedly considered bolting in the last few months: they have not liked this government since its inception.

Orbach lives in Petah Tikvah, Silman in Rehovot. Both have come under fire in their communities, at their synagogues, and within their families for sitting in a government with left-wing parties.

The writing for this defection was on the wall. And this is where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made his strategic mistake: he missed the writing. He forgot that while you can gallivant around the world as Israel’s leader, mediate between warring countries and participate in historic peace summits in Arab capitals, in the end – when you only have 61 MKs in your coalition – all it takes is one backbencher to bring it all down.

It is also a lesson in the importance of how to create a party list. Yamina members were not elected in primaries like in the Likud or Labor. They were handpicked by Bennett. But there was nothing that connected them. Chikli jumped ship right when the government was formed, Abir Kara is under police investigation for double voting, Silman has defected, and Orbach has now issued his own ultimatum.


Bennett has been very active on the world stage, such as at this Summit in Sharm El Sheikh on March 22,  but arguably neglected domestic political maintenance, especially in his own party.  (Photo: Israeli Prime Minister’s Office)

Bennett’s mistake was neglecting his party. The Knesset went on recess a few weeks ago? Instead of flying to Sharm e-Sheikh, he should have invited the MKs on a retreat to try to strengthen the alliance. It is not as glamorous as sitting in a presidential palace alongside two Arab leaders, but without political maintenance, none of it would be possible anyhow.

To Bennett’s credit, he jumped into his role as prime minister with the same vigor he tackled all previous ministries that he led. He passed a budget, strengthened ties with Arab countries, cracked down on Arab crime, rehabilitated US relations with the Biden administration, approved a procurement plan for the IDF, and helped push through a series of much-needed religion-state reforms.

But in Israel, Bennett learned, there is no such thing as just being prime minister of foreign affairs. You also have to manage the party and keep everyone in line. Yamina members, for example, criticized him on Wednesday for leaving them to fight in the Knesset and not looking back.

When he stood in Jerusalem two weeks ago next to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and heard accusations about settler violence, Bennett failed to push back. Instead, what Yamina MKs heard was Bennett say “West Bank” for the first time in his political career.

He had broken too far left. Following the advice of adviser Shimrit Meir, Bennett pushed the envelopes’ boundaries and left his right-wing ideology behind. The problem was, the party members and their voters were still deep in the right. And though chief of staff Tal Gan-Zvi and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tried to keep Bennett in the right-wing camp, in the end he zagged left.

The result? Summits around the world, but a political disaster at home.

The polls tell it all. At one point Meir promised Bennett that with her strategy he would reach double digits. As of Thursday, Bennett – the incumbent prime minister – was polling at five seats, barely above the electoral threshold.

When will his tenure end? On one hand, the government can soldier on even without a majority. Yes, every Knesset vote will be a bloody debacle, but without a clear majority in the opposition, the coalition can survive.

At the same time, if Silman is just the beginning and more MKs will follow her out the door, then the government’s days are obviously numbered. One more defector means the opposition, in theory, could pass a bill to disperse the Knesset. This immediately sends Israel to an election, and would see Bennett removed from the Prime Minister’s Office and Yair Lapid move in (under their coalition agreement, if the government collapses prematurely, Lapid automatically becomes prime minister).

Would Netanyahu want to see Lapid as prime minister? Hardly. Neither would Defense Minister Benny Gantz. But what then are the options? Yes, the bad blood between those two has not faded since their split in 2020. But if Gantz is given the choice of either seeing Lapid become prime minister or agreeing to becoming prime minster himself in a coalition with Likud, he might well choose the latter – despite having been previously burned often by Netanyahu.

The next few weeks will be critical for the future of the coalition, determining if it can endure the long-term volatility of not having a clear majority. Either way, this week saw the beginning of the eventual collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government. The countdown to the next election has started.

Yaakov Katz is the Jerusalem Post’s editor-in-chief. He previously served for close to a decade as the paper’s military reporter and defense analyst. 

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