As Orbach departs, the coalition recognizes it might not survive

Despairing comments from Bennett underline an understanding that the disputes tearing the coalition apart wouldn’t be healed even if the latest Yamina rebel were to come back

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Yamina MK Nir Orbach seen leaving the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem after meeting with PM Naftali Bennett, June 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina MK Nir Orbach seen leaving the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem after meeting with PM Naftali Bennett, June 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yamina MK Nir Orbach quit Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition on Monday, dropping the ailing political alliance into the Knesset minority — two seats behind the divided but determined opposition.

But hours later, when Israeli channels aired their nightly primetime news broadcasts, neither of the two top mainstream outlets led with the defection.

This is not because the coalition’s position is not grave: it most certainly is. Rather, Orbach’s defection was just the latest gash to Bennett’s disintegrating coalition, already subjected to an unrelenting death watch for weeks by the media.

Orbach’s decision might prove to be a key wound inflicted during the coalition’s death throes, but for now the more telling signals are actually coming from the government, which has apparently resigned itself to the situation, indicating that the underlying illness is terminal.

Shortly after Orbach’s public pullback from the coalition, Bennett acknowledged the gravity of the situation and estimated that the coalition will collapse within the next two weeks unless its MKs fall back in line — a shift from his previous attempts to project business as usual. Even if designed to scare and motivate coalition MKs and party leaders into getting their ducks in a row, the fact that Bennett felt the need to change his messaging still underlined the depth of the crisis.

“There are members of the coalition who still haven’t internalized the importance of the hour,” Bennett said to the Knesset plenum on Monday, in an appearance that happened to coincide with the one-year anniversary of his government’s establishment. “I call on members of the coalition who are set on voting against the government, we have a week or two to get this straight and then we can carry on a long time. If not — then we cannot [continue].”

In between Orbach’s announcement and Bennett’s remarks, the coalition was forced to pull government bills and fold up shop for the day and possibly beyond, lacking the votes to pass its legislative agenda.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset during a “40 signatures debate” in the plenum hall on June 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Just last week, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said he was easing back on a push to pass the 2023 state budget, so he could focus on keeping the coalition intact instead.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, a key figure in holding the coalition together, has also started to change his rhetoric. Famously optimistic, Abbas raised the specter of elections in an interview with Channel 12 on Saturday.

“If we don’t succeed, in my opinion, we need to go back to the nation and say, here, we’re returning the mandate to you and choose who you want to lead the state in the next stage,” Abbas said, although he added that it was too early to eulogize the government.

“We’re making every effort to maintain this coalition,” the Ra’am leader said.

The beleaguered coalition is being squeezed from all sides of its right, left, center, and Arab alliance. Complicating matters, many of the crises are intertangled, creating exactly the type of Gordian knot of incompatible ideologies the eclectic coalition said it would endeavor to avoid when it formed a year ago.

Yamina was elected to the Knesset on a pro-settler, pro-Jewish national character platform. Among the compromises necessary to hold together the unwieldy coalition, Yamina has been constrained in delivering on these issues.

Former coalition whip and party MK Idit Silman cited ideological incompatibilities when she quit the coalition and deprived it of its majority in early April. Orbach, in his letter, accused “extremist, anti-Zionist elements,” such as Arab MKs Mazen Ghanaim and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, of pulling the coalition “in problematic directions” and “holding it hostage.”

Things fall apart

Although the eight-party, cross-political spectrum coalition was formed on the premise of setting aside divisive ideological questions in favor of the bulk of policy problems it could compromise upon, ultimately ideology is felling the alliance.

Three renegade MKs — Orbach, Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi — and potentially one irked party — New Hope — are at the heart of the internal disputes, holding incompatible positions and, as of yet, unwilling to fold. The acute stimulus is the effort to renew long-standing, routine legislation that applies Israeli laws to West Bank settlers. Both Ra’am’s Ghanaim and Meretz’s Rinawie Zoabi voted to torpedo the legislation and have pledged to do it again.

Shortly after last week’s unsuccessful vote, Orbach indicated it was the last straw. Moments after Ghanaim cast his decisive vote, Orbach approached the lawmaker and yelled “the experiment is over,” referring to the Arab-Jewish political partnership.

MK Nir Orbach confronts MK Mazen Ghaniam during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition leaders have called for Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi to fall in line or to resign, but neither has budged yet. Bennett’s shuttle diplomacy couldn’t pull Orbach back from the edge, merely extracting an understanding from him to not vote to dissolve the Knesset for another week, while Bennett tries to resolve the settler law issue.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which arguably exacerbated the situation by setting up the bill as an existential test for the coalition and then forcing a vote when it was expected to fail, has reportedly calmed down in the past few days. Whereas before the vote, Sa’ar and ministers from his party were reportedly in contact with Likud members over the possible contours of an alternative coalition, after the vote the contact is said to have chilled.

“He won’t go back to the Likud, there’s no chance,” said political analyst Emanuel Navon, who is connected to Sa’ar. “It’s not an invitation to create a stable government,” Navon added, saying that the Likud has broken promises in the past and could easily force elections if a new coalition proves unfavorable.

And, for good measure, the nationalist ideological debate is coupled with a side problem. Blue and White MK Michael Biton is also on strike, boycotting most coalition votes in protest against planned transportation reforms.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 12, 2022 (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Pool)

The result is a situation in which party leaders are essentially herding cats, but with bait that lures some and sends others scurrying away.

As Bennett said on Monday, “This government is excellent, but it relies upon a difficult coalition. We are fighting for this government — that’s the truth.”

Pressure has been mounting on Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi to return their seats to their parties. While both continue to hold on, Ghanaim has been said to be more open to the idea. On Sunday, Ra’am cleared the path towards gracefully swapping Ghanaim out with another, more pliable politician.

But even if these lawmakers’ opposition to the settler bill can be resolved, Orbach is unlikely to come back. As he wrote in his letter, he is against a government that relies on the mostly Arab Joint List party. If he were to return to a deadlocked coalition of 60-60, it would still need outside support. The Joint List is the only opposition party not allied to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his explicit plan to block coalition lawmaking in order to pressure the government.

In addition to being ideologically conflicted, Orbach is under intense personal pressure, facing weeks of ongoing protests outside his family home from right-wing activists who demand he leave the coalition.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi in the Knesset plenum on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Orbach in his resignation letter said that he would prefer an alternative right-wing government from within the current Knesset. That possibility has been long touted, but is likely unrealistic without Sa’ar’s whole New Hope party joining the effort.

While two other MKs from the prime minister’s Yamina party, Abir Kara and Shirly Pinto, have either said they would ally themselves with an opposition-led right-wing government or have equivocated on the issue, they alone would not be enough to tip the right-religious bloc’s 55 seats into 61.

When asked if she would sit with the Likud in an alternative government, Pinto said that her priority is preserving the current coalition. She did not rule out the possibility of an alternative.

“I would be ready for a full-fledged right-wing government, if there is such a government — happily,” said Kara to Army Radio on Tuesday.

“But if not — I’m against elections, and call on all my friends to come to their senses so that the coalition can function properly and get back on track.”

Those friends don’t seem to be listening.

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