Key losses expose fatal threats facing Bennett’s coalition from every direction

Failed votes on settler bill and ministerial post deepen the cracks in a coalition that was once vaunted for its myriad ideologies but now risks being felled by them

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s unlikely governing alliance, which has defied expectations and broken barriers, smashed through a new precedent, becoming the first government since 1967 that failed to renew a key piece of Knesset legislation extending Israeli laws to West Bank settlers.

To some, the vote was the death rattle of a coalition that has somehow managed to limp through months of turbulent defections and threatened rebellions. It exposed the depth of the crisis the coalition finds itself in and laid bare a network of stressed fault lines extending from seemingly every corner of the political spectrum, any of which could bring down the year-old eight party alliance at any moment.

The bill — to renew the application of Israeli criminal and some civil law to settlers — failed because of MKs from three coalition party slates: members of the Ra’am party, Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, and rebel Yamina MK Idit Silman, who no longer sits with the coalition.

In a deadlocked contest with the opposition, Ra’am and Rinawie Zoabi would have all had to vote for the bill, with Silman’s simultaneous abstention, in order for it to pass.

Instead, Rinawie Zoabi and Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim voted against it, while the remainder of Ra’am and Silman absented themselves.

In the second blow of the night, Silman cast a deciding vote against a motion to reinstate a fellow party member in his ministerial post.

The legislative contests are expected to resume as early as Monday, when the coalition can bring the settler law bill back for another attempt at its first reading.

If there still is a coalition.

Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas (L) speaks with his party MK Mazen Ghanaim (R) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sa’ar’s last stand?

The settler law bill also failed Monday, however, because Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar insisted on bringing it for a vote even though it was likely to fail.

Sa’ar has been stewarding the bill through its legislative process, and over the past week, began to position the bill as an existential test for the embattled coalition, which since the defection of Silman, the Yamina rebel, has been sitting at a 60-60 seat deadlock with the opposition.

“A coalition member who does not support such a fundamental law is actively working for its dissolution,” Sa’ar said at his New Hope party’s faction meeting Monday afternoon. Last week, Sa’ar said that the bill is a test of the coalition’s desire to continue to exist.

Sa’ar’s warnings have added fuel to speculation that his New Hope party and the opposition Likud are in talks to form an alternate government that could return opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to power after just a year leading the opposition. Sa’ar has denied such negotiations.

Justice Minister and New Hope party head Gideon Sa’ar leads a Knesset discussion and vote on a bill to extend the application of some Israeli law to Israelis in the West Bank, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sa’ar insisted on bringing the bill Tuesday despite the probability it would be voted down. The decision only heightened speculation in the Knesset as to why Sa’ar would set a bill up as critical, just to watch it fail.

As reported by The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael, among the rumors circling Knesset hallways is that Sa’ar may have been setting up a justifiable exit from the coalition.

Adding grist to the rumor mill, Army Radio reported on Tuesday morning that New Hope held a series of meetings Monday on how to handle the defeat. Among the options raised was resigning from the government, although Army Radio reported that this option was dropped. New Hope denied the Army Radio report.

Acting coalition whip Boaz Toporovsky seemingly confirmed the tension before Monday’s vote, telling The Times of Israel that, “New Hope has to decide if it’s climbing down.”

A former ally-turned-foe to Netanyahu, Sa’ar ran on a platform that included a vow to not lend a hand to return Netanyahu to power. Sa’ar likely fears the wrath of voters who may not appreciate the about-face and some recent polls have shown the party struggling to remain in the Knesset.

However, Sa’ar also has had difficulty passing key pieces of legislation, such as a recently lapsed bill to enact a prime ministerial term limit. With the exception of statements over the past week in connection to the West Bank legal bill, the justice minister has been tight-lipped in recent weeks regarding the state of the coalition and his current plans.

Silman slams the door

Silman struck against the coalition twice on Monday night… or, more accurately, was ready to.

Ahead of the vote on renewing the settler law bill, the former whip and staunch supporter of the settlement movement said she would vote against it, but ultimately did not need to cast a ‘no’ vote after Ghaniam and Rinawie Zoabi beat her to it.

But she did cast a deciding vote against the reappointment of fellow Yamina MK Matan Kahana to his religious affairs minister post, a vote that doubled as a motion of confidence in the government.

Until that point, Silman had been a rebel with one foot still in the coalition. In the two months since jumping ship, she had still generally cooperated on key measures. Yamina had responded by holding back from officially declaring her a rebel MK, which would carry far-reaching consequences for her political future.

MK Idit Silman seen at the Knesset on June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Now that paradigm of cooperation has gone out the window, and the coalition is attempting to show Silman that its threats have teeth, with Kahana stating at a Tuesday conference that Silman showed she is no longer part of the party.

“She proved in her actions yesterday in a final and decisive way that she’s not part of the Yamina faction,” said Kahana, a Bennett confidant. “I think that there will be consequences to that.”

But without Silman, the coalition will be hard-pressed to pass legislation without bringing in support from somewhere else. It has partnered on areas of joint interest with the opposition’s majority-Arab Joint List party, but the scope of that support is limited – and unthinkable for bills with a nationalist character, such as the law renewing the application of Israeli law for settlers.

Also in Yamina, MK Nir Orbach has been pegged as a flight risk ever since Silman first bolted two months ago. Orbach had issued ultimatums to stay in the coalition, two of which tied back to settlements. With the recent departure of Bennett’s chief of staff Tal Gan-Zvi , the government lost a key figure who had helped keep the twitchy Orbach happy.

Shortly after Ghanaim voted down the settler law bill on Monday night, Orbach was filmed approaching the Ra’am lawmaker and shouting, “You don’t want to be partners. Your experiment has failed” — in reference to Ra’am’s pioneering vision of 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)

Even before the failed vote, Orbach had issued a statement toeing closely to the Likud-led opposition’s line, that Arab parliamentarians are holding the country hostage.

“The Israeli government must not succumb to the endless blackmail of some Arab Knesset members. Neither MK Zoabi nor anyone,” Orbach wrote. He said that the settler law renewal “must pass” and that “our right to act in settlements is not under a question mark and so it will continue.”

Hebrew media reported that Orbach talked at length with Bennett after the vote failed on Monday night, and was said to have made clear that he was fed up with the current coalition.

Against the occupation, but paving the path for a right-religious return?

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Rinawie Zoabi made clear she was voting against the bill not to bring down the coalition, but because of ideological objections.

“It’s my responsibility to be on the right side of history by not giving legitimacy to the occupation and in supporting the basic right of the Palestinian people to establish a state alongside the State of Israel,” she tweeted.

Ironically, Rinawie Zoabi may have helped pave a path back to power for a right-religious coalition.

Unlike Rinawie Zoabi, who placed conviction over political expediency, the opposition’s 54-seat right-religious bloc has chosen to place toppling the government ahead of all other considerations. That included voting against the same settler law measure it has supported in the past and other measures it ostensibly backs.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (L) speaks with Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim (R) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill in question would extend a series of regulations giving Israeli settlers in the West Bank access to Israeli courts, protections and institutions, though the same rights are not extended to Palestinians, leading to charges of discrimination and worse against Israel.

Rinawie Zoabi’s decision to oppose the bill weakened a flagging coalition and raised the pressure on right-wing elements within their big tent political alliance to stage their own rebellions, making the chances of an unconflicted right-wing government returning to power more likely.

Comments by some members of the opposition to justify their decision to vote against the bill exposed the far-right ideology that may fill the halls of power should the government be replaced.

“The ideal is sovereignty [in the West Bank],” Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman told The Times of Israel before Monday’s vote.

He said that he did not support the bill because it was a “bandaid” that did not address the root issue in his eyes, Israel’s imperative to annex the West Bank.

Like Silman, Rinawie Zoabi is now facing calls for her ouster.

“Whoever can’t stand up to the difficulties can pack their things,” Meretz leader and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz tweeted on Tuesday, suggesting she hand her seat over to the next Meretz lawmaker in line.

“Those who can’t live with this coalition should leave,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday morning during a Democrat TV conference. “Those who can should commit to it. You can’t play both sides.”

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