The governing coalition opened the Knesset’s summer session Monday in the midst of a major crisis threatening to shunt it from power after less than a year, but party leaders insisted that the coalition could avoid collapse, preaching unity and dismissing opposition claims that its days are numbered.
Eleven months after taking office, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has lost his parliamentary majority, his own party is crumbling, and a key governing partner has suspended cooperation with the coalition. That has set the stage for a possible attempt by the opposition, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to topple the government later this week.
While Bennett appears to be poised to fend off this immediate challenge, his longer-term prospects are uncertain at a time when the government is deeply divided over major issues, Israel is facing an ongoing wave of stabbings and shootings by lone-wolf Palestinian attackers, and a confrontation with the United States over West Bank settlement construction is looming.
Boaz Toporovsky, the acting coalition chairman, acknowledged that the coalition was in the midst of a “serious crisis” but said he was optimistic it would survive. “Everyone understands that we’re at a crossroads that can bring about, heaven forbid, elections in Israel,” he told the Israeli public broadcaster Kan.
Speaking to his Yesh Atid faction before the plenum opening Monday afternoon, party leader Foreign Minister Yair Lapid expressed cautious optimism in the coalition’s ability to persevere.
“Some legislative efforts will be delayed, but Israel has had similar governments in the past that survived for a long time,” he said, calling on the opposition to “act differently.”
Addressing his fellow Yamina lawmakers during a faction meeting on Monday, Bennett acknowledged that the coalition’s current situation is not ideal, but insisted that plunging the country into another election was not the answer.
“Political instability is unhealthy for a country. We all need to right the ship and take responsibility. We are in a significant wave of terrorism, and we need to stand united in front of our enemies,” he said.
“It is very important to hold the coalition together because the alternative is going a year backward, which is awful,” he said, arguing that over the past year his government has begun healing rifts in Israeli society that were exposed by the rioting in so-called mixed cities during last May’s Gaza war.
Bennett urged fellow lawmakers not to engage in political fights with ideological rivals within the coalition because it is only holding on by a thread.
The new government made history when it took office last June, ending a prolonged deadlock in which the country went through four rounds of inconclusive elections in just two years. Racing to head off what would have been another election, Lapid and Bennett cobbled together a diverse coalition of eight parties with little in common beyond their shared animosity toward Netanyahu.
But the uneasy alliance between hardline religious nationalists, dovish left-wingers and the Islamist Arab Ra’am has appeared headed for dissolution of late.
One member of Bennett’s Yamina party — Amichai Chikli — defected back when the government took office, accusing him of abandoning their nationalist ideology. A second member — Idit Silman — followed suit last month, leaving the coalition and opposition equally divided in the 120-seat parliament.
Meanwhile, Ra’am’s four MKs have frozen cooperation with the coalition over tensions surrounding Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Party head Mansour Abbas has not indicated if or when he plans to bring his party back into the governing fold, though he said last week that he would not take an active hand in bringing the government down.
Identifying the coalition’s perilous position, Netanyahu declared Monday that its days were numbered.
“It’s over, Naftali. Your government has finished its short and feeble term,” he said in an address from the plenum.
“This government does not have public legitimacy.”
During his own faction meeting, Netanyahu repeated his claim that Bennett’s government was “dependent” on Ra’am’s Abbas, insinuating that the Islamist party was dictating the country’s national security strategy — an assertion coalition leaders have denied.
“This weak and fraudulent government is incapable of standing even for a moment against the submissive policies of the American administration against Iran, just as it is incapable of fighting Hamas terrorism,” the Likud leader said.
Netanyahu later submitted one of the opposition’s two no-confidence votes in the government.
The first vote failed 52-61, thanks to the opposition of the Joint List, despite it being outside the coalition, as the measure would have created a government with Netanyahu at the helm.
Even should the no-confidence votes garner a simple majority, they remain largely symbolic so long as 61 MKs don’t back the measure to form an alternative government within the current Knesset, which would include naming the prime minister and other cabinet members.
Netanyahu is weighing whether to introduce another motion as early as Wednesday to dissolve parliament and trigger new elections. Such a move is risky. It would require at least one of the remaining members of the coalition to join him, and there is no guarantee that will happen. If Netanyahu fails, he would not be able to introduce a similar motion for the next six months. Meanwhile, an ongoing corruption trial against him moves ahead.
Speaking to his Blue and White faction, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he would do everything in his power to prevent another round of elections.
“For that to happen, I hope to see the support of the ultra-Orthodox factions,” he said, referencing the opposition parties with whom he has maintained working ties, raising speculation of a future partnership if the government were to fall.
In the meantime, though, “the Blue and White party will do everything it can to stabilize the political system,” Gantz said.
Addressing the current wave of terrorism that has killed 19 people since March 22, Gantz said: “We are dealing with terrorism that is being nourished by lies and incitement. The Defense Ministry, IDF, Shin Bet and the police are working with full capacity in Israel, the West Bank and anywhere necessary.”
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attacked Netanyahu for the current tensions with Hamas and accused him of teaming up with “bizarre and messianic” entities that “lack any limits” and would do anything to topple the coalition.
“Netanyahu has no connection to the right,” Liberman said, accusing him of being “a person who agreed to pay cash to a terror organization,” in reference to Netanyahu’s policy of allowing foreign money to reach Hamas during his tenure.
“This is a good coalition that represents the general Israeli population,” Liberman added.
A public opinion survey in April by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 30% of respondents believed the government was likely to survive the year, down from 49% in February. The think tank polled 751 Israeli Jews and Arabs and reported a margin of error of 3.65%.
Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said he expects the coalition to weather the storm, at least in the short term.
He said that even unhappy coalition members would have much to lose if the country were to plunge into new elections. Abbas, for instance, is just beginning to see the huge amount of funding he has secured flow into the impoverished Arab communities he represents.
But any member of the coalition can now pressure the government into pushing pet projects opposed by other partners. This week, a Defense Ministry panel is expected to advance plans to build some 4,000 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, despite vociferous opposition from the United States and most of the international community. The construction project is being pushed by members of Bennett’s own party, who views settlers as part of their base of support.
“The next few days will allow us to know whether the coalition is in critical but stable condition or critical but unstable condition,” Plesner said. “The immediate areas to look at are either the Ra’am party, as a whole or parts of it, or elements from within Yamina.”