Moving Kahana back to the Knesset is Bennett’s attempt to circle the wagons

Sidelining another party MK, the prime minister is bringing one of his most trusted political allies to shore up his most vulnerable front as the coalition teeters near collapse

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Then-Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana attends a Knesset House Committee hearing to declare MK Amichai Chikli a defector from his Yamina party, April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana attends a Knesset House Committee hearing to declare MK Amichai Chikli a defector from his Yamina party, April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In asking one of his ministers, a member of the security cabinet, to resign his post in order to return to Knesset, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is likely trying to reverse his Yamina party’s reputation as the weakest link in his faltering coalition.

Effective Sunday evening, now-former religious affairs minister Matan Kahana will replace soon-to-be former MK Yomtob Kalfon in the Knesset.

Kahana is utilizing the parliament’s Norwegian Law, by which he is allowed to immediately resume his Knesset seat by quitting his ministerial post, and in doing so, bump out Kalfon, the last MK who joined the party’s parliamentary slate.

Kahana said the move, announced on Friday afternoon, was made to “strengthen the coalition,” and sources within the party deny that it was to stop Kalfon’s imminent defection.

Nevertheless, the Kahana-for-Kalfon swap quickly sparked chatter among political analysts and opposition politicians who speculated that Yamina engineered the move to prevent another flight risk.

Shortly after Kahana’s formal announcement that he would be leaving the ministry to rejoin the Knesset, senior Likud MK Yariv Levin put out a statement accusing Kahana of making a “hasty return” to the legislative body for “fear of the departure of another Knesset member.”

Yamina MK Yomtob Kalfon leads a Knesset Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While it might be easy to believe the opposition’s narrative that Kalfon was a flight risk, it is more likely a smart political move by a prime minister recognizing the need to circle the wagons.

Over the past year, Yamina saw its parliamentary presence shrink. It went from seven elected mandates to six effective ones as soon as the government was sworn in, when now-ousted MK Amichai Chikli refused to vote to bring the Bennett-led coalition government into being.

Following the April departure of former whip and party MK Idit Silman from the coalition, Yamina’s coalition strength ticked down to five seats, and the coalition reached 60-60 parity with the opposition.

Over the ensuing weeks, three additional party members have been under scrutiny as flight risks. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and MKs Nir Orbach and Abir Kara are coordinating their plans, and while Yamina is not out of the woods, the latter two have cooled their public expressions of dissatisfaction with the current coalition.

The Kahana-for-Kalfon switch was the second dramatic personnel change seen on Friday. Bennett’s diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir, who controversially was seen to veer into politics as well, announced that she would be leaving her position in two weeks. With her departure, there is an opportunity for a more rightward shift by advisers remaining in the Prime Minister’s Office who are more ideologically aligned with Yamina’s base.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with his foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That said, there are several reasons to believe that Kalfon was not an immediate threat to the coalition. Sources close to Kalfon say he was surprised by Bennett’s decision, which was relayed to him on Thursday evening. Bennett has been treating him solicitously since he broke the news, acquiescing to Kalfon’s request to delay the announcement until Friday late afternoon, to allow him a final day in Knesset on Sunday, and offering him opportunities to remain within the party.

Bennett has also told Kalfon that if he can be brought back into the Knesset, he will.

One route for this would be if ousted MK Amichai Chikli were to quit the Knesset in order to evade sanctions for abandoning his party. Chikli’s seat would revert back to his former Yamina party and Kalfon could fill it.

Most practically, Kalfon, as a replacement MK for Yamina ministers under the Norwegian rule, was always constrained in his ability to pose a sustained threat to the coalition. Unlike Chikli or Silman, Kalfon could be swapped out by one of the party’s two ministers. If Kalfon were to vote for a potential opposition bill to dissolve the Knesset, he would be quickly replaced.

The only existential threat Kalfon could have posed to the coalition would have been supporting a no-confidence measure, which would have had to have passed with 61 votes in order to immediately replace the government and prevent Kalfon’s ouster.

That said, Bennett may have opted to use Kahana as reinforcement for his wobbly coalition even without any threat posed by Kalfon.

Kahana injects personal loyalty into the fractious Knesset delegation. The former minister is the closest Yamina politician to Bennett, whom he has known since their army days.

Additionally, Yamina’s Knesset MKs are relatively new parliamentarians, who — besides seasoned lawmaker Bennett and Silman, who also served in the aborted 2019 government — are all first-timers. The party’s leaders – Bennett, Shaked and Kahana – run ministries and the government.

This affects the dynamic, said a Yamina source close to the decision to return Kahana to Knesset.

Another reason the party may have wanted to execute the trade is to send a warning to Shirly Pinto, the party’s other Norwegian law-gained lawmaker.

Yamina MK Shirly Pinto attends a Knesset discussion on the so-called ‘Electricity Law’ to connect Arab and Bedouin towns to the power grid, January 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, Pinto – like other coalition MKs – experienced the power of sitting in a coalition without a majority and began to made a number of demands, including that she replace Silman as head of the Knesset’s Health Committee, along with funding for people with disabilities. Yamina sources deny that this was a motivation, but the message remains. If Pinto causes trouble, Yamina can swap in Shaked for her seat.

Upon resigning his post, Kahana’s ministry temporarily passes to Bennett, who is expected to appoint Kahana as a deputy minister in the ministry in order to allow him to effectively continue running the office.

This arrangement has a limited lifespan, but the coalition hopes to relatively quickly approve Kahana’s return appointment to the post of minister, which he can hold simultaneously with his new Knesset seat.

The opposition is expected to rally against the move, and may provide Silman her first real test by pressing on her to vote against the appointment. Silman, although no longer part of the coalition, remains a Yamina MK. She has been expected to walk a fine line, not voting with the coalition but not voting against it on key legislation either. Last week, Silman absented herself from two opposition-led no-confidence measures, both of which ultimately failed.

By abstaining from votes, she hopes to avoid being expelled from her party and facing sanctions constraining her ability to run in the next set of elections, as Chikli does.
Without Silman, the opposition can only rally 59 votes to block Kahana’s return appointment, which will be overpowered by the coalition’s 60.

Chikli, who is expected to fight his expulsion from Yamina , also abstained from voting against the government in last week’s no-confidence votes. Should he also abstain from voting against Kahana’s re-appointment, the opposition may be stuck at 58.

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