Instability in the Israeli Government — Again

By a TIJ Contributor

Ministers Neftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz talk to each other and Idit Silman, who recently defected to the opposition coalition. Photo: Knesset Spokeswoman/Noam Moskowitz.

The history of democratic theory is a proud one. Dating back to the Enlightenment, some of history’s greatest thinkers made lofty arguments for the sanctity of the individual and the rights of a human being to have a say in their government. These ideals were truly revolutionary and can be seen in the constitutions of nations from India to Tunisia to the United States. Credit to thinkers like Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau — voting certainly beats repression, and I’d take representation over tyranny any day. But just ask Israel — democracy can get ugly.

It may be the understatement of the year to say that Israeli politics have been in a state of turmoil the last half decade. It all started in late 2018 when then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition fell apart, leading to elections in April of 2019. This election failed to produce a ruling coalition, so another election was held in September 2019 — more indecision. The 2020 election yielded a government that ruled only briefly, which led us to the 2021 election, the fourth in under three years. Through all this turmoil, Benjamin Netanyahu was able to remain prime minister simply because no one could muster up enough votes to oust him, even though he did not have enough supporters to form a stable government of his own. But in 2021, right-wing leader Neftali Bennett strung together a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of a coalition. His ruling group had ideological diversity to spare, incorporating groups from the far left to those on the far (but not extreme) right. Bennett also looped in one of the two Arab parties, Ra’am, a group which has historically declined to participate in government. Tension was a given. Bennett once called the leader of Ra’am a “supporter of terrorism.” Ra’am opposes LGBTQ+ rights while Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the far left Meretz party and coalition member, is gay. Meretz supports giving land to the Palestinians, while Bennett’s Yamina party favors aggressive settlement expansion. These parties were tied together by nothing but hatred for Netanyahu, who continues to face charges and scrutiny over corruption charges. Defying all expectations, including my own, this bizarre and contradictory government, which began with only a 62–58 majority, has managed to stay together for almost a year. That may be about to change.

Bennett’s lead over the opposition has always been slim, and he has been done no favors. Early on in the electoral process, Amichai Chikli, a member of Bennett’s own party, left the Yamina party, citing an unwillingness to work with the left-wing and Arab parties. No worries, Bennett still had 61 votes, enough for a slim but functional majority. This tiny advantage held until April 6, when party whip and Yamina member Idit Silman defected to the opposition. In leaving the coalition, Silman cited Nitzan Horowitz’s wish to allow chametz into hospitals during the Passover — you can read more about this controversy elsewhere in TIJ. This Passover excuse is… flimsy. Silman waxed poetic about the importance of keeping hospitals Kosher for Passover, saying “[p]eople during the Holocaust fasted on Passover so as not to eat chametz, and a minister in the State of Israel within a coalition like ours unfortunately says to introduce chametz.” That’s rich. Maybe Silman really does have ideological opposition to this practice of allowing bread in hospitals, but to imply that to allow for this exception somehow devalues the horrific legacy of the Holocaust is, at best, political grandstanding. At worst, Silman is weaponizing the death of millions to bonk her political opponents on the head. The real driving force behind this move, as is the case with almost every political move in Israel in the previous fifteen years, is the omnipresent and unkillable Benjamin Netanyahu.

Silman’s defection threatens the continuation of the Unity Government. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Predictably, Benjamin Netanyahu, as an opposition member, has been trying to take down Bennett’s so-called “unity government” since day one. When the government was forming in an attempt to unseat the man many call “King Bibi,” Netanyahu said “this [government] is a con. This is not a national unity government, it is an anti-Zionist government. This is a con government and we should not allow this to happen.” When the government did form, Netanyahu nearly toppled the coalition by mobilizing opposition to a controversial citizenship law favored by Bennett. The bill failed and nearly killed Bennett’s government, but the rag-tag unity government held together through the substantial challenge. Pulling away Silman is Netanyahu’s first potentially fatal blow he has been able to deal to the ruling group. According to reports, Silman received a guarantee from Netanyahu that she would become health minister (ironically Nitzan Horowitz’s current position) in a future Bibi government. If I were Silman, I would be worried about taking someone like Netanyahu’s word, but Silman clearly sees a bright political future for herself. It would be deeply cynical to argue that Silman was acting purely in self-interest — she probably has become genuinely disillusioned with Bennett’s government. However, the idea that it was only because of the chametz issue is equally ridiculous, especially seeing as she rejected Horowitz’s offer to compromise on the issue.

Some blame Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz for the instability in the ruling coalition. Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

Bennett and his coalition aren’t dead yet, but they’re close. Silman’s defection, coupled with Chikli’s initial refusal to participate, have dropped Bennett’s government from a 62–58 majority to a 60–60 tie. While this tie in the legislature is not quite enough to oust Bennett from power — that would require 61 votes — it’s damn close. One more defection and the unity government would be toast. If that were to happen, due to a quirk in the Bennett government’s mandate agreement, Neftali Bennett would instantly be replaced by his number two, Yair Lapid. If this were to happen in the next few months, Bennett would have the ignominy of being Israel’s shortest-serving PM. As it stands, the Bennett government is effectively neutered — no substantial legislation will pass without help from the opposition that is unlikely to come.

So what’s next? Well, it’s anyone’s guess really, but I have to imagine that new elections are on the horizon. After all, a government can not continue hamstrung like this indefinitely. Perhaps the next crisis shakes loose another opportunistic legislator who sees a future for themselves on Netanyahu’s side. These potential elections are, again, anyone’s to win. Since Netanyahu still contends with a great deal of dissent among his discordant opposition group, he would need a significant bump in popularity in a theoretical next round of elections to gain the requisite 61 votes. Maybe Bennett would win a larger mandate. Maybe elections never happen and Bennett secures an opposition defector, or maybe he governs hamstrung until the next time a budget needs to be passed. Maybe Netanyahu goes to jail or is barred from public office over his corruption scandals, although, frankly this seems unlikely. As is the case with all of Israeli politics, anything, and I mean anything, is possible.

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