Just when Israel thought it was enjoying some political stability, the abrupt departure of a member of prime minister Naftali Bennett’s government has sent shockwaves through Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, right-wing member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, Idit Silman announced her defection from Bennett’s political party, Yamina – robbing the government of its majority.
The coalition whip is said to have resigned after reports of middle of the night secret meetings between the former PM and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is desperate for a political comeback.
The crisis comes after a series of deadly attacks in Israel that killed 11 Israelis, putting high pressure on the government. As the country remains on the highest level of alert for Ramadan, Passover and Easter, violence may erupt between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a video statement, Netanyahu congratulated Silman: “I call on all those elected by the national camp to join Idit and come home. You will be welcomed with complete respect and with open arms.” He also called on other members of government to quit and join the coalition. Netanyahu held an opposition rally in Jerusalem hours later, calling Bennett’s government “weak” and predicting its downfall.
At his Yamina Party faction meeting, Bennett accused Netanyahu, who Israelis refer to as Bibi, of verbally bullying Silman but warned that if they didn’t stabilize the coalition: “The alternative is more elections and perhaps more elections after them, and back to the days of dangerous instability for the State of Israel. “
In her resignation letter to Bennett, Silman cited her reasons for leaving as her key values are “inconsistent with (the coalition’s) current reality.”
“I am ending my membership in the coalition, and I will continue to try to persuade my colleagues to return home and to form a right-wing government. I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
She was referring to a spat with the left-wing health minister Nitzan Horowitz over a letter he sent to hospitals urging them to obey a High Court of Justice decision whereby hospitals could not bar people from bringing in non-kosher-for-Passover food, known as hametz, during the holiday, which starts next week.
But it is widely believed the real trigger for Silman bolting the coalition were promises from Netanyahu to become Israel’s next health minister – if and when the former Israeli leader should win and form a new government.
“The issues aren’t about Silman, we convinced her that this was the right decision for Israel and for the people. We are hoping to find one or two more members of Yamina that will leave and come to Likud, this is what we are currently trying to do,” Miki Zohar, member of Knesset for Likud and close Netanyahu ally, tells The Independent.
“If we want a new government we need to convince other members to join, we are working on it. We will wait and see. Even if we don’t form a new government we have no problem going to an election, the citizens can decide for themselves.”
Netanyahu has vowed to bring down Bennett’s government from the day it sent him to the opposition. He engineered Silman’s resignation even while standing trial for corruption. Bennett’s government had vowed to pass legislation preventing Netanyahu from leading Israel while facing criminal charges. But now it’s unclear if Bennett will have the time or the votes to put up any barrier to Netanyahu’s comeback.
The fragile coalition government, of eight different parties – centre, left, right, Arab and Jewish – had only agreed to form the coalition last June after four inconclusive elections. Most had extremely different political ideologies but shared a desire to oust Netanyahu after more than 12 years in power. To their credit, they managed to pass the first state budget in three years.
The coalition only had a majority of one seat, however Silman’s defection means the government no longer holds a majority. But neither does the opposition. The two sides are deadlocked at 60 lawmakers each, though Netanyahu’s bloc is just 54 with the largest Arab party, The Joint List, holding six seats. They have already rejected the idea of joining Netanyahu’s bloc. Netanyahu’s chances of wooing six more people from Bennett’s government seems an unlikely ask.
Now an early election is being touted as the likeliest outcome – meaning Yair Lapid would become PM in the interim as per coalition agreement.
But it may not happen so fast as long as there are no more Bennett defections. But Bennett will have a hard time passing his legislative agenda without a majority. It appears unlikely he will be able to hold on for 16 months, as it will take just one wayward lawmaker to help Netanyahu win a no confidence vote and usher in new elections.
But all of that is at least a month away as Israel’s parliament is on break for the holidays of Ramadan, Passover and Easter.
That gives Bennett a bit of time to study the political chess board and figure out his next move.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.