The Knesset reopens on Monday for the summer session with the government fighting for survival after losing its majority during the recess and the opposition vowing to bring it down.
The crisis was sparked by the surprise defection of the former whip, Yamina MK Idit Silman, on April 6, which ended the diverse eight-party coalition’s one-seat majority, leaving the 120-member parliament deadlocked with a 60-60 seat parity between the coalition and opposition.
The loss of Silman was further exacerbated by the Islamist Arab party Ra’am freezing its membership in the coalition amid tensions on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Ra’am is facing pressures from within, split over whether to support party leader Mansour Abbas’s experiment taking an active role in Israeli politics or to cut its losses and return to the opposition.
If Ra’am pulls out its four seats, the government will find itself in a clear minority.
The opposition parties have vowed to take advantage of this. After opposition party heads held a meeting at the Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters on Sunday, they agreed to continue the “determined and unified fight” to topple the government.
“The government has lost its Knesset majority — it has no public legitimacy and it is illegitimate,” a statement said.
The opposition will bring a vote of no confidence on Monday. However, it would be largely symbolic and is not expected to have an effect beyond slowing the coalition’s legislative process and possibly embarrassing the government.
More substantively, the opposition is also reportedly weighing whether to bring to vote a bill to disperse the government on Wednesday, when private bills can be submitted.
Dispersing the Knesset without an exigent trigger requires a law. If it is put forward by the Likud party on Wednesday, as a non-government bill, and it passes in a preliminary reading, it would not mean the government dissolves automatically. Rather, it would need to pass a first, second, and third vote in future plenum sessions.
But putting forward the bill has risks for the opposition. If the bill fails to receive a simple majority of votes in its preliminary or first readings, the opposition would be blocked from bringing it again for six months, taking a major arrow out of its quiver.
A bill to disperse the Knesset requires 61 votes to pass in its third and final reading, meaning that the opposition would also need to secure another defector from the coalition.
It is also not clear if the opposition’s Arab Joint List party, with six seats, would join the the right-religious bloc in the vote.
The Likud-led opposition has reportedly failed in several attempts to secure another defector from one of the right-wing parties in the coalition or Ra’am despite allegedly making several generous offers.
Adding a second layer to the drama is that if someone does cross over, their party affiliation will determine who would be interim prime minister until elections and a new government sworn in.
According to the current coalition agreement, if it is a member of a right-wing party then Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would take the helm.
But if the defectors are from the center or left, including Ra’am, then Naftali Bennett stays on as prime minister.
Silman counts as a Yamina MK; former Yamina MK Amichai Chikli — who jumped ship upon the formation of the coalition, and was formally designated a defector two weeks ago — critically, does not, according to the Lapid camp.
A third option for the opposition would be to get an entire faction from the coalition to switch allegiance and establish a government without new elections. The Walla news site reported Sunday that this is the preference of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, even it if means that the government would be formed and led by someone other than former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite the right wing having a clear majority in the Knesset, several parties have refused to join any coalition under Netanyahu, who is on trial in three corruption cases. Netanyahu has refused to step down as Likud party head.
Channel 12 reported that New Hope’s Zeev Elkin and Likud’s Yariv Levin held a meeting at the Knesset on Sunday, with the two saying it was just about procedural matters. However, the report speculated they could be discussing future cooperation.
Elkin is one of several Likud party members who broke away in opposition to Netanyahu.
Despite opposition efforts to bring down the government, a likelier option is that the government will take itself down.
For the coalition, the threat of a dissolution bill is compounded by the uncertainty over how Ra’am plans to act.
Channel 12 reported Sunday that large gaps remain in the negotiations between Ra’am and other coalition heads aimed at the Islamist party resuming its operations within the ruling bloc.
The party plans to boycott the Wednesday plenum session and the dispersal vote.
While it would only be a preliminary reading and would need several more approvals to pass, it would put in motion the process of bringing down the government, something the coalition would prefer to avoid.
The recent conflict in Jerusalem has exacerbated these pressures, making it difficult for party leader Abbas, who reportedly wants to find his way back into the coalition.
Abbas wrote on Facebook on Saturday that his party would determine its position on the Temple Mount based on the positions of Jordanian King Abdullah II, who he said was the rightful custodian of the holy site.
Known as Haram al-Sharif or the Al-Aqsa complex to Muslims, the Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s third holiest. Recent tensions at the site have reverberated into terror attacks across Israel, pressure from Israel’s allies, threats from Hamas, and the exacerbation of the ongoing coalition crisis.
In addition to pressure from the wider party, Abbas will have to contend with two of his three other parliamentarians. MK Walid Taha has been firm on maintaining the freeze and MK Mazen Ghanaim, who is reportedly focused on his 2023 bid to return as mayor of Sakhnin, said that he wants the party out of the coalition.
Beyond the dispute with Ra’am, the coalition is hampered by the fact that with only 60 members, each MK has the ability to topple the government if their demands are not met. In a bid to counter this, the coalition has agreed to only try to pass non-controversial bills that have widespread support.
Bennett met on Sunday with the heads of coalition parties, excluding Abbas who is abroad, and they agreed “to work together in order to maintain the government and the coalition for the good of Israel’s citizens,” a statement read.
Bennett addressed the stability of the coalition at the meeting, warning of the consequences of dissolving the government.
“The government must continue to function so that businesses affected by the Omicron wave will be compensated, [and] so that this year’s Lag Ba’omer festivities at Mount Meron will take place safely and not end again in an avoidable tragedy,” the prime minister said.
While the full legislative slate will be finalized in the hours before the opening of the session’s first plenum, one of the first measures expected is a bill to compensate self-employed people financially impacted by the latest COVID wave.
Despite this, further cracks were already showing.
On Sunday, MK Eli Avidar – elected to Knesset with the Yisrael Beytenu party but operating independently – reasserted his intention to push forward a bill to prevent a criminal defendant from forming a government, largely seen as a personal attack on Netanyahu.
A source within Bennett’s Yamina party pointed to Avidar’s bill as exactly the type of counterproductive behavior that could imperil the fragile consensus.
Similarly potentially inflammatory is a bill proposed by Likud MK Avi Dichter but supported by Yamina’s Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahane in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, a gatekeeper for government-supported legislation. The bill would amend the penal code to classify “foreign political entities” as foreign agents with which the state could restrict contact, according to a report in Hebrew daily Israel Hayom. The expanded definition would include non-state bodies like the Palestinian Authority and is understood as a constraint upon left-wing organizations. It would be difficult to swallow in a coalition that includes the dovish Meretz and Labor.
The prime minister’s own party, Yamina, is also a source of tension, with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and MKs Nir Orbach and Abir Kara now reportedly coordinating their moves. Currently, Orbach’s demands are being addressed by extending childcare subsidies to yeshiva students and moving forward on approving West Bank settlement construction. Kara wants economic benefits for small businesses and self-employed persons, which include Monday’s expected Omicron grant bill.
Yamina MK Shirly Pinto also caused a bit of a stir, saying that she wanted Silman’s coveted chairmanship of the Knesset’s health committee. Silman, despite leaving the coalition, has been able to retain her committee leadership because Yamina hopes it will incentivize Silman to refrain from voting against the coalition. Channel 12 reported Pinto presented additional demands to Bennett, including funding for community services for people with disabilities.
The coalition still lacks a new whip, following Silman’s resignation. Yesh Atid MK Boaz Toporovsky is temporarily filling the spot, but Bennett wants a Yamina member to hold it. Orbach, reportedly the party’s first choice, has not agreed to take on the role. His team has pointed to his outstanding demands, including finalizing West Bank building plans and connecting illegal settlement outposts to the power grid.