Inside story'The weakest link was never Mansour Abbas. It was Gantz'

As coalition scrambles for stability, sources warn divisions with testy Gantz remain

Blue and White head says he’s working to maintain the government, but he has tussled with other leaders and is accused of holding back settlements, bringing coalition to the brink

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett believes he has regained control of his Yamina party after one of its MKs announced that she was bolting the coalition due to disputes with colleagues regarding issues of religion and state, an official in the premier’s faction told The Times of Israel late Wednesday.

“We’ve stopped the bleeding for now,” the official said after Bennett held marathon meetings throughout the day with each of the coalition’s seven other party heads as well as every member of his own faction — except MK Idit Silman. Hours earlier, Silman shocked colleagues by announcing she was resigning from the coalition, leaving it without a parliamentary majority.

Silman and opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu still have their sights set on luring away at least one more Yamina lawmaker, with Abir Kara, Nir Orbach and Yomtob Kalfon seen as particularly vulnerable.

As for Bennett’s No. 2, Ayelet Shaked, the Yamina official insisted that the pair were on the same page and that she would only vote to topple the coalition if its fate had already been sealed.

However, a coalition source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that defectors could also come from the similarly right-wing New Hope party as well as the centrist Blue and White party.

While losing the majority puts the already-fractious coalition on shaky ground, it still has an edge over Netanyahu’s right-religious opposition bloc, which has only 54 Knesset members including Yamina mutineers Silman and Amichai Chikli, who defected when the coalition was formed. The Arab-led Joint List’s six Knesset members, while not in the coalition, are also opposed to Netanyahu.

“The most likely scenario is that we continue with a 60-MK coalition for at least another year,” the Yamina official said.

During that time, the coalition will focus on “playing defense instead of offense” in the Knesset, where parliamentary activity will largely grind to a halt, the Yamina official continued.

The coalition can coast this way well until at least March 2023 when it’ll be forced to pass a budget — something it will need a majority to accomplish. Failure to do so will trigger new elections.

A poster showing Yamina MK Idit Silman at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem on April 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Silman’s resignation, in protest over government moves she said were harming the state’s Jewish identity, gave Netanyahu a massive boost in his quest to return to the prime minister’s office after less than 10 months.

He reportedly coaxed Silman to quit the coalition she’s been managing as whip in exchange for a reserved spot on Likud’s slate and a promise to head the Health Ministry if the party forms the next government.

The opposition carried the momentum from Silman’s bombshell announcement to an emergency Knesset hearing on the recent terror wave in Israel, where the bloc of largely hard-right lawmakers grilled the coalition over its handling of a spate of attacks in late March in which 11 people were killed. Netanyahu topped off the day with a rally attended by thousands of right-wing supporters who called on those similarly ideologically aligned in the government to follow Silman’s lead.

Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem on April 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Still, two coalition sources said the government’s instability went well beyond Silman, singling out Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as the largest fly in the coalition ointment.

The sources faulted Gantz, who is defense minister, for refusing to adhere to a series of written agreements and pledges, particularly regarding the West Bank and settlements. The lack of action played into Silman’s decision to defect and has created issues for other lawmakers as well.

The sources pointed to government commitments to legalize the Evyatar outpost after it was found to have been built largely on what Israel considers to be public, state-owned lands in the northern West Bank; to legalize a yeshiva at the evacuated Homesh outpost after it was targeted in a terror shooting earlier this year; and to advance settlement construction after the Defense Ministry body that approves such building hasn’t met in five months. Lawmakers blame Gantz for the government failing to follow through on all three.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz tours a lookout point in the West Bank, April 1, 2022. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The coalition is made up of eight parties from across the political spectrum, including those that vociferously back settlement building and those that just as staunchly oppose it.

The centrist Gantz was not seen as particularly adversarial to the settlement movement in the past. He’s shifted his views over the years from opposing construction deep in the West Bank to more recently arguing that all Jewish communities in the disputed territories have a “right to exist.”

But he has also been among the most sensitive in the government to the concerns of the Biden administration, which spoke out vehemently when Israel advanced plans for roughly 2,000 settlement homes last October. Gantz says he views the support of the US as essential in defending Israel’s security interests and has sought to act accordingly.

Over the past year, he has spoken about the importance of advancing settlement building “responsibly.” He reiterated that stance again on Sunday amid growing calls for him to convene the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee in order to advance the next batch of settlement plans.

As right-wing members of the coalition have faced the wrath of voters over the lack of government moves that favor right-wing policies, they have redirected that anger at Gantz, making him a prime target.

“The reason we didn’t want to sit [in a coalition] with Bibi is because he wouldn’t adhere to agreements, but now we’re getting the same treatment from Gantz,” one coalition source said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Right-wing activists call for the return of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration against the current government in Jerusalem, April 4, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Gantz and his Blue and White lawmakers have also sparred with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, particularly over the defense minister’s efforts to secure pension hikes for IDF officers.

And frayed ties with erstwhile partner Yair Lapid, foreign minister and next in line to be premier, have recently begun to show. Gantz is said to be bitter over the fact that Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to rotate the premiership to Blue and White, leading to elections that resulted in a new rotation deal between Bennett and Lapid, once Gantz’s junior partner.

His relationship with Bennett has also had its challenges, which most recently surfaced in a tiff over the timing of their respective trips to India.

“The weakest link was never [Mansour] Abbas or anyone else,” said the coalition source, referring to the head of Ra’am, an Islamist party in the coalition. “It was Gantz.”

Gantz has attempted to project an air of business as usual, appearing with Lapid for a joint briefing with foreign ambassadors posted in Israel on Wednesday. He also issued a statement insisting that he is intent on stabilizing the current government following Silman’s defection.

“I spoke with the prime minister today, and we are working to try and preserve the government,” Gantz said following a meeting he held with his faction. “Blue and White has been and will continue to be the most disciplined and central faction in the coalition.” He added that his party wants the government to remain in place “and in that sense, nothing has changed since yesterday.”

A spokesman for Blue and White did not immediately return a request for comment on this story.

One of the sources noted that the coalition was working to break off its own defector from Likud, namely former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has come out publicly against Netanyahu.

The coalition source clarified that despite the hurdles that remain, the situation has stabilized.

“No one is issuing ultimatums,” this source said. “There’s work to do, but no major steps need to be taken for now.”

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