The embattled coalition vowed to try and find a way to carry on after a stinging loss in the Knesset late Monday, but the conspicuous silence of a key member following the defeat raised fresh questions about how long the fragile alliance can survive.
Two Arab coalition MKs were among those who voted against legislation to renew the application of Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israelis in the West Bank, helping to defeat the bill, and endangering the chances of passing the measure before a June 30 deadline.
The Likud-led opposition pounced on the result, declaring that the government’s time was “over.”
“Bennett — go home. It’s over. It’s time to return Israel to the right,” said a short statement from Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.
Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Religious Zionism party also predicted the government was nearing its end.
“This evening it was again proved that the government is dependant on anti-Zionist elements and it can’t defend the basic values and needs of the citizens of Israel,” Smotrich said.
“This government does not have a right to exist and today we approach, thank God, the end of the Bennett, Abbas, Tibi government,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas and Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi.
The mostly Arab Joint List, which is part of the opposition, voted against the bill along with Smotrich and the Likud.
Despite the loss, coalition leaders said the government, made up of eight ideologically distinct parties, would carry on. The vote did not immediately topple the government, and it is still possible for the coalition to present a modified version of the legislation.
“Like always after a loss, we’ll return stronger and win next round,” tweeted Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the principal architect of the coalition.
Abbas, of the Islamist Ra’am party, also said “we will find a way to keep the coalition going.”
Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim and Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi voted against the bill, while the remaining three Ra’am MKs and rebel Yamina MK Idit Silman were absent from the plenum.
After the vote Rinawie Zoabi tweeted that she voted against the bill because “it is my obligation to be on the right side of history, not giving legitimacy to the occupation and supporting the basic rights of the Palestinian people to a state alongside Israel.”
Rinawie Zoabi briefly resigned from the coalition last month, but was eventually cajoled back.
Perhaps of most concern for the coalition was the silence after the vote of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, leader of the right-wing New Hope party.
“Any coalition member who doesn’t vote for this law that is so central is an active participant in its demise,” Saar warned before the vote. Last week, Sa’ar said that the bill was a test of the coalition’s desire to continue to exist.
There have been numerous reports in recent days that Sa’ar was in talks with the Likud to form an alternative government without going to elections.
Sa’ar has repeatedly denied the reports, but if New Hope leaves, it could give the opposition the votes it needs to trigger new elections or form a new government.
Sa’ar has been stewarding the bill through its legislative process, and over the past week, has begun to position the bill as an existential test for the embattled coalition, which since the defection of Silman, the Yamina rebel, has been sitting at a 60-60 seat deadlock with the opposition.
Right-wing opposition parties, despite supporting the measure ideologically, voted against it, having vowed to do everything in their power to prove the coalition’s impotence and bring about its rapid downfall.
Still on its first reading, the measure is expected to return to the Knesset floor as early as next week, but the prospect of the coalition passing it then also appears slim.
The vote followed a raucous debate that took place over the course of nearly five hours. A good portion of the last hour was captured by Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin, whose filibuster provided the coalition additional space, though not enough to come to an agreement with Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi.
During his remarks, Elkin accused the opposition of betraying its values, while members of the opposition-leading Likud party heckled the New Hope minister by yelling, “It’s over.”
Bennett’s Yamina party responded by accusing vocal opposition members of joining the majority-Arab Joint List party — also a member of the opposition — in voting “against the residents” of the West Bank.
“The Likud will burn the country for Bibi’s needs,” the Yamina statement said, referring to opposition leader Netanyahu by his nickname. Promising that the coalition would be resilient, Yamina also pledged to push the West Bank bill through, as it succeeded in doing with two other key bills that tanked in the past year before being revived.
During the debate leading up to the vote, Sa’ar said that if the Knesset did not vote to approve the bill, it would “turn [settlers] into people without standing.”
Noting the possible consequences, should the current law lapse at the end of June without a finalized renewal, Sa’ar said the school year would be threatened, drivers’ licenses won’t be issued, identity numbers could not be assigned, and the West Bank could turn into a “sanctuary” for criminals.
Originally enacted in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the law remains an “emergency measure” that must be renewed every five years. Last passed in 2017, it is set to expire at the end of June.
Agencies contributed to this report