How Naftali Bennett doomed his own coalition

The Yamina PM’s fatal political failure was in choosing a Knesset slate that, unlike those of all his 7 coalition partners, has proved unwilling to follow its leader

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina, with Yamina MKs and supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett, head of Yamina, with Yamina MKs and supporters at the party headquarters in Petah Tikva, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Naftali Bennett’s eight-party coalition is collapsing, its wafer-thin majority lost because the Yamina party leader failed to maintain the loyalty of his own party’s legislators.

While Yamina’s seven wildly diverse partners ultimately stood with the coalition through its rockiest moments — most notably its own initial confidence vote in the Knesset last June and the passage of the budget in November — it was Bennett’s own party members who caused some of the greatest problems, and now have set in motion the downfall of his government.

Bennett lost the backing of one of his party colleagues, Alon Davidi, before the Knesset was even sworn in: Sderot Mayor Davidi decided not even to take up his Knesset seat due to his opposition to the alliance with center-left parties. He barely managed to wrangle support out of MK Nir Orbach, who very nearly shot down the entire project at its start. He quickly lost the support of another, Amichai Chikli, who opposed the coalition in its investiture vote and has become a de facto member of the opposition.

And on Wednesday, Bennett lost the crucial support of his coalition whip Idit Silman. With her resignation and declared determination to help engineer a right-wing coalition in the current Knesset, so went his governing majority, and one or more of the remaining Yamina MKs may yet follow suit.

The coalition hasn’t fallen yet. The road to an alternate, Benjamin Netanyahu-led majority is complex. So, too, the path to the dissolution of the Knesset and new elections. But the government’s days are numbered.

It was always likely that the government would fall apart sooner rather than later: The closer it got to the scheduled rotation of the prime ministership to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid in fall 2023, the greater were the prospects for its collapse, with the Yamina membership in particular deeply troubled by the notion of sitting under the centrist, secular Lapid. But Silman’s resignation has radically accelerated the slide to its demise.

Defeated Benjamin Netanyahu walks away after briefly shaking hands with new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after the Knesset voted confidence in Bennett’s coalition by 60-59 votes, June 13, 2021. MK Idit Silman is left of Bennett. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

The ideological straw that broke her back, Silman indicated, was the coalition’s readiness to comply with a High Court of Justice decision that says hospitals may not bar people from bringing in hametz — non-kosher-for-Passover food — during the holiday that starts at the end of next week.

It is easy to deride this objection as a pretext — the court ruling is not new, and there was no likelihood of the coalition seeking to overcome it. Yet Silman was evidently becoming increasingly discomfited to be not merely sitting in this most diverse of Israel’s governments, but twisting arms to get its legislation passed as coalition whip.

And her open discomfort only invited more pressure from right-wing opposition Knesset members, who patronized and derided her as a “little girl,” recognizing her as the weakest link. She may also well have felt the pressure from the right increasing, and worried more about the legitimacy of the coalition, as terror escalated in recent weeks.

Evidently, too, however, Silman would like to continue her political career, and thus would seem to have become the latest in a long line of legislators to place their faith in the promise of a glittering future issued by Likud’s would-be returning prime minister Netanyahu.

Idit Silman leads a Health Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 30, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett’s coalition may limp along a little further. The simple fact that the Knesset is in recess until early next month complicates some of the potential processes for its ouster.

But the anti-Netanyahu momentum — the personal animus for the Likud leader and the concern at the threat he may pose to Israeli democracy — that enabled Lapid to weld together the bizarre alliance of left, right, centrist and Arab parties, all that has stalled. The coalition’s simple, important achievements — passing a budget, acting by consensus, seeking at least some of the time to detoxify the climate of political debate — are being eclipsed. The Knesset’s solid right-wing majority is making itself felt. The opposition has the upper hand now. Netanyahu is pressing for more defectors.

The opposition Joint List of mainly Arab parties will not want to help pave Netanyahu’s path back to power. But even if some Joint List members were minded to back Bennett, MKs from several coalition parties would not be prepared to rely on Joint List support for a governing majority.

This government was balanced on a knife’s edge from the start. Once Bennett had lost Chikli, and the coalition was down to 61 supporters in the 120-seat Knesset, every one of those 61 had the power to doom it. However it plays out, and however long it takes, Silman on Wednesday delivered the death blow.

Some analysts argued on Wednesday that Bennett could have held his fractious 61-strong team together had he only spent more time attending to the concerns and needs of Silman and other potential defectors and departees, rather than devoting energy to building a Netanyahu-style international profile by, for instance, offering his mediation skills in the Russia-Ukraine war.

But as Davidi’s departure, Chikli’s instant defection and Silman’s fresh resignation underline, his failure runs deeper and dates back earlier — to before the 2021 elections and the subsequent negotiations that gave rise to his coalition. Bennett’s fatal political mistake was in selecting a Yamina Knesset slate that, unlike those of all the other seven coalition parties, proved unwilling to follow its leader.

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