As coalition tensions mount, top Haredi MK hints at potential dissolution of coalition

Growing discord within Netanyahu’s alliance of parties has some lawmakers questioning how long the government can last

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

MK Moshe Gafni chairs a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, July 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Moshe Gafni chairs a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, July 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid increasing distrust between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies, a senior United Torah Judaism lawmaker hinted on Monday that the current government may not have long to live.

Challenged by Yesh Atid MK Naor Shiri in the Knesset Finance Committee as to why schools in the northern town of Alma were not being fortified by the government, chairman Moshe Gafni replied that his “power is weak.”

“If you are weak, this house can be dissolved,” shot back Shiri, prompting Gafni to reply: “That is where we are headed.”

Gafni’s comments, which he subsequently walked back as a “joke,” came only five weeks after he threatened to leave his position as chair of the influential committee over a dispute regarding ultra-Orthodox educational funding. They appeared to be the latest sign of doubt among members of Netanyahu’s hardline coalition that they can continue to keep the government together.

Ultra-Orthodox distrust

Following the failure of the so-called Rabbis Bill backed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party last month, Haredi lawmakers indicated that they no longer feel that they can rely on Netanyahu to look out for their interests.

“There is no coalition, there is no discipline, and the most frustrating thing is that Likud is a party made up of 35 separate factions,” equivalent to the number of its Knesset seats, one unnamed Shas official told the Kan public broadcaster after two Likud lawmakers refused to support the legislation despite pressure from the prime minister.

Speaking with The Times of Israel following Netanyahu’s removal of the bill from the Knesset agenda, UTJ lawmaker Moshe Roth argued that the prime minister’s about-face showed that the government had failed to live up to “many” of the promises made to his party when it agreed to join the Likud-led coalition in late 2022.

“UTJ has lost its trust and its will to be a part of this coalition. Right now I can’t tell you what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back but we are definitely close to that. The question is, will Likud be able to deliver?” Roth asked. “That is the only question and we’ve had enough, more than enough, of procrastinating and that’s why we are reaching the end of the road.”

“Maybe in the future we will make agreements with the left and not with Likud,” he added.

Ultra-Orthodox anger was further stoked by the High Court of Justice’s ruling in late June that there is no legal basis for excluding Haredi men from the military draft and the coalition’s continuing failure to pass legislation enshrining in law the status of previously exempt yeshiva students.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have long presented the forcible enlistment of yeshiva students as a red line that would endanger the already tenuous stability of their alliance with Netanyahu, who is dependent on their support to maintain his thin majority in the Knesset.

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Asked about his party’s plans following the ruling, a spokesman for UTJ leader and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf said that the party was focused on forging an agreement on the enlistment bill, which would lower the current age of exemption for yeshiva students from 26 to 21 while “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

If that bill passes then “everything will be okay,” he said.

Edelstein throws a wrench into the works

However, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Likud MK Yuli Edelstein’s recent promise to advance the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill only “with broad agreement” has reportedly caused the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox member parties to reconsider whether they want to be part of the government.

Following Edelstein’s statement last month, multiple Hebrew media outlets reported that Shas and United Torah Judaism were weighing resigning their cabinet posts, while remaining in the coalition.

Resigning as ministers is a step toward pulling out completely. It threatens the stability of the government by reducing its appearance of strength, revealing internal dissension that could spiral, and opening the door to voting against the government.

Since the resignation of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party from the government last month, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has held only 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, a slim margin that has left his hold on power dependent on keeping all of its constituent parties happy.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein leads a Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Jerusalem, June 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Should Shas take its 11 seats to the opposition, or UTJ’s seven-seat strong faction walk, new elections would likely ensue. While Netanyahu managed with the 64-strong majority for his first 10 months in power (and has survived with even smaller margins of error), now he is liable to face an electorate that could be eager to punish him and his allies for the failures of October 7 and its aftermath.

Settlements and hostage deals

Aside from the ultra-Orthodox, other senior coalition officials have also hinted that they believe the government’s days may be numbered.

Speaking with residents of a newly recognized West Bank settlement on Saturday night, Settlement and National Projects Minister Orit Strock described recent months as a “miracle period” of settlement expansion ushered in by the government, but like Gafni indicated that she was unsure how long it would last.

Waxing lyrical about “what we’ve accomplished just in the past several months,” Strock said that “the hand is still outstretched” for land appropriation as long as the government, “with God’s help,” still stood.

But “it’s unclear that it will stay standing, completely unclear,” she added.

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Some of that lack of clarity may stem from the actions of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the head of Strock’s far-right Religious Zionism party, who has repeatedly threatened to quit the government if Netanyahu signs a hostage deal with Hamas.

Similar threats have also emanated from ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who even went so far as to temporarily stop voting with the coalition last month in order to force Netanyahu to reveal details of an Israeli proposal for a Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal.

The tensions between Ben Gvir and Netanyahu grew even more last month, when the ruling Likud party accused the minister of leaking “state secrets” following apparent leaks to the press.

Tensions have also grown between Ben Gvir and Smotrich in recent weeks, with Ben Gvir recently calling on his former electoral ally to refrain from personal attacks after Smotrich accused him of failing to curb violence in the Arab Israeli community.

Likud infighting

While there is little if any talk about Likud lawmakers defecting from the coalition, the increasing willingness of some MKs to buck Netanyahu on Haredi conscription and other issues also highlights the tensions within the coalition.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits troops on the Gaza border on July 3, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

These growing internal rifts were on display during Sunday evening’s cabinet meeting, when Netanyahu and members of his government harshly criticized Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, accusing him of playing politics by refusing to support an ultra-Orthodox draft law unless it earned broad consensus.

Gallant had come into the meeting intending to discuss the need to grow Israel’s military manpower pool, arguing that lengthening mandatory service while also raising the age of retirement for reservists would actually decrease the number of days spent in reserve duty overall.

However, the conversation quickly derailed, with the prime minister accusing him of seeking to topple the government and of tying the ultra-Orthodox draft to the issue of a truce and hostage deal with Hamas, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

Despite the fact that members of the government have called on Netanyahu several times to fire the defense minister, the level of criticism directed at Gallant during the cabinet meeting came as a shock — with Gallant expressing dismay over the fact that the broadside coincided with the nine-month anniversary of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

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