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Analysis

Even if the Bennett government survives, Israel’s political paralysis has returned

Silman didn’t want and couldn’t handle the powerful position she was in. Her resignation brings back the hobbled governments of 2019-2021, and ordinary Israelis will pay the price

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at the Knesset on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at the Knesset on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Idit Silman’s surprise resignation as coalition chair and defection to the opposition is a dramatic turning point for the coalition. The most politically diverse government in Israel’s history had, until Wednesday, clung to power by the slimmest possible parliamentary majority. The loss of Silman marks the loss of that majority.

But it might be more reasonable to think of the news as a resumption of the political dynamic that prevailed from the spring of 2019 till last June: a breakdown of old rules and assumptions, a fragmented parliament repeatedly reelected by a similarly divided electorate. A paralysis.

Idit Silman’s defection from the coalition she was charged with managing was predictable, and indeed predicted, by many who knew her. She never wanted the fame. A longtime activist and part-time political operator on the religious-Zionist right who squeaked into the current Knesset only because of the resignation of another Yamina member, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, a day before the new Knesset’s swearing-in last year, she expected to be a backbencher doing backbench work.

But when right-wing Yamina pivoted away from backing a hobbled Benjamin Netanyahu who was plunging headlong into a fifth consecutive election, and chose to form the strange, unprecedented coalition with the left that Bennett now leads, backbencher Silman suddenly found herself in the eye of the storm. She became the target of one of the most intense campaigns of right-wing vilification of any of the coalition’s MKs.

Unlike many of her colleagues, she experienced that anger intensely. And personally. It reached beyond Twitter or the op-ed pages of right-wing newspapers.

As she described it in interviews over the past year, it affected friendships, relationships with her neighbors and her religious community. A kind of social isolation set in — again, as she conveyed the experience. She took to sleeping in the Knesset during the week, complaining that her office lacked even a shower.

Idit Silman, then-head of the Arrangements Committee, leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset, November 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Silman left much of her political negotiations to her husband — up to and including the quiet talks with Likud’s Yariv Levin that brokered her Wednesday split from Bennett.

She complained regularly about her Knesset work. She once claimed to have been accosted by a right-winger at a gas station, and was accused by the right of fabricating the incident.

The point isn’t in the details, but in the sense that emerges from them of someone who’d found herself caught up in something she hadn’t wanted and couldn’t handle.

Silman’s claim on Wednesday that her resignation was over a fight with Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz about rules against bringing non-kosher-for-Passover food into public hospitals — that she was defending “the Jewish identity of the country,” as she put it — is hard to swallow. Not even her new friends in Likud believe it.

On all sides, the general view is that she has succumbed to the intense social pressure that her stint in the unity government had sparked. The language with which she has described her actions on Wednesday repeatedly framed her decision as one of last resort. The words “I can’t anymore” came up repeatedly: “I can’t continue on this path, because of my values and the place I come from,” Channel 12 quoted her as saying. “I can’t bear any longer the harm being done to our values and our principles,” she wrote in her resignation letter to Bennett.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) speaks with MK Idit Silman at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud’s response on Wednesday understood all that. It pulled out all the stops to ensure her volte-face marked both a political and a social coming in from the cold. There are, Netanyahu hopes and believes, more right-wing MKs struggling with the personal and social costs of their membership in the Bennett-Lapid coalition, and they’re watching closely to see how Silman’s defection is treated by the right.

So Netanyahu has set out to turn Silman’s pivot into a rehabilitation. He welcomed her “home,” offered her the tenth slot on Likud’s next Knesset list, and sent his proxies and spokespeople to talk about her courage and laudable commitment to her convictions.

Leader of the Opposition and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 6, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The rest of the right-religious coalition joined in the effort. Far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich spoke of a “new dawn,” while the Haredi press carried reports of rabbis phoning Silman to offer their blessings for her decision. One rabbi, the mystical kabbalist David Batzri, reportedly blessed her “to merit to become leader of Israel.”

The impossible, unprecedented Bennett-Lapid coalition has proven its mettle, so the right’s campaign to pull it apart has pivoted from attacking its right-wing members to offering them a rehabilitation on the right. Silman was the first to take the plunge, and Netanyahu is committed to ensuring she won’t be the last.

Courage

Yet there is more to Silman’s move than a succumbing. There is political courage, too. She is taking an enormous gamble.

Likud has promised her the tenth spot on its Knesset list in the next election and the post of health minister in the next Netanyahu-led government. The trouble with Likud’s promises, and especially with Netanyahu’s, is that the recipients often have to deliver their part of the bargain first — and find that they no longer have the leverage to extract the fulfillment of that promise from Netanyahu afterward.

Netanyahu has promised but failed to deliver on a long list of such promises. His reputation for dishonesty is not just an ethical problem; it proved politically ruinous over the past three years when he literally lost the capacity to make such political promises. Having promised Benny Gantz a rotation as prime minister, and solemnly vowing on national television there would be “no tricks and no shticks,” Netanyahu then resorted to the unprecedented and dramatic trick of, for the first time in Israel’s history, refusing to pass a state budget for a fiscal year, forcing new elections before Gantz could take his seat as premier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s reputation as a promise-breaker is scarcely better within Likud. Just ask Nir Barkat, Gilad Erdan, Moshe Feiglin or Orly Levy-Abekasis, or two dozen others who discovered his promises had a shelf life no longer than their immediate political leverage over him.

But there’s another reason this is a dangerous gamble for Silman. There’s a long way still to go before the Bennett government actually falls.

It’s not enough to push the coalition down to 60 seats in the 120-seat legislature. It’s not even enough for Bennett to lose every other Yamina MK to Netanyahu. To replace the government without elections, Netanyahu’s right-Haredi alliance must find 61 votes for a new government. It’s hard to imagine that the opposition’s Joint List, an amalgamation of Arab political factions deeply opposed to Netanyahu, would support such a move. So the Netanyahu-led factions are starting this journey back to power with — including Silman’s defection — just 54 seats.

Silman is the first significant crack in the dam. But, as Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio on Wednesday, “it’s a long road ahead. I don’t think we can form a stable national government in the current Knesset.”

The most likely scenario, then, is a new election. The Joint List, with just six seats, wants it. So does Smotrich.

Head of the Tkuma party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of Channel 20 in Jerusalem, on March 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

That’s bad news for Silman. Her value to Netanyahu would fade quickly, leaving her reliant on his goodwill when she comes to cash in on Wednesday’s many promises.

But it gets worse for her position. The very fact that new elections may be the only way forward could stabilize the teetering coalition. Most of the coalition’s factions are not eager to give up their term in power. Some, such as New Hope and Yamina itself, aren’t sure they’ll be voted into the next Knesset. All must be seen to deliver for their voters before facing them again.

In terms of the parliamentary calendar, there’s no rush. The state budget passed last year covers the government’s work through the end of 2022, which means the coalition does not legally need to pass another state budget to avoid a snap election until the spring of 2023.

Silman may have ended her political career — but not necessarily felled the Bennett-Lapid government. There is precedent here. The Rabin government of the mid-90s, the Barak government in 2000 — all survived for some significant time without a parliamentary majority.

And if the government does survive, Yamina will have the opportunity to formally declare Silman a “rebellious MK,” a legal status that a political faction can apply to a lawmaker that breaks from its ranks, which robs them of the legal right to run in the next election on any existing party list.

If Silman’s move doesn’t spark an avalanche of defections, and quickly, she will find that she has sacrificed her position with one side of the aisle while holding only a handful of unfulfillable promises from the other.

On politics and sports

The political system has entered — or re-entered — a period of uncertainty. But one thing is not uncertain. The current government, if it survives, will be unable to muster parliamentary majorities for any significant initiative.

Reforms or major budgetary decisions are all frozen now. The paralysis of 2019-2021 is back.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps there is no path back to power for Netanyahu that doesn’t chart a reverse course back through the paralysis that pushed him out in the first place.

But there are real costs to that paralysis that are obscured by the news media’s sportscasting style of political coverage — costs that will be paid not by Bennett or Silman or Netanyahu, but by countless ordinary Israelis in the coming years.

A major, urgently needed billion-shekel package of financial aid for small businesses hurt by pandemic closures hangs in the legislative balance, as does a new pension framework for the army, a minimum wage increase, and tax breaks for working parents. The largest-ever transportation spending bill, a dramatic upgrade to the country’s rail networks, now sits on the Knesset docket waiting to move forward. A revised Haredi draft bill that would release more young Haredi men from their study obligations and allow them to join the workforce at a younger age will be frozen.

A closed restaurant on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown, January 6, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

So it goes for a dozen more major initiatives, most of them supported as wholeheartedly by Likud as by Labor and Meretz, but now headed for a political deep freeze.

Politics aren’t a sport. Neither Silman nor Netanyahu nor Bennett are their subject. They are, first and foremost, the management of the people’s business — and that business will once again not get done.

Silman has probably handed Netanyahu the beginning of the end of the Bennett-Lapid government. Rumors are circulating that Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Benny Gantz are already in talks on forming a joint bloc for the next election. Yet even as all sides prepare for a new campaign season, the visceral fear in the coalition of losing power may grant this hobbled government a long, drawn-out death — followed, quite possibly, by a return to the indecisive elections of the last three years.

And while partisans celebrate or mourn each twist and turn in the political soap opera, it will be ordinary Israelis, especially but not only among the struggling working classes, who will suffer the consequences.

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