New elections creep closer with resignation, but coalition of 59 not buried yet

Minority governments can survive, but Bennett must move quickly and carefully, with Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi uninterested in a reversal and the Knesset’s possible dissolution looming

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Naftali Bennett walks in the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
Naftali Bennett walks in the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

The coalition will need to act quickly to stabilize itself and survive Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi’s surprise departure, which dropped support for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government to a minority of only 59 MKs on Thursday.

While the left-wing lawmaker’s departure further constrains the coalition’s ability to legislate and contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty, it is not an immediate death knell for Israel’s 36th government.

In fact, three previous governments have survived at some point with a 59-seat minority in the 120 member house, which they quickly shored up with outside support or by adding additional coalition members. This is because Israeli governments do not collapse by virtue of losing their majority. Rather, they need to be brought down in one of three ways: a bill to dissolve the Knesset and force elections, a constructive no-confidence measure approved by 61 MKs under which an alternative government is approved without a resort to elections, or failure to pass a state budget within the necessary timeframe.

The opposition-leading Likud party is already debating whether or not to propose a bill to dissolve the Knesset as soon as next Wednesday, which is the day allocated for opposition and private bills. Last week, the party pulled the same bill after it realized it wouldn’t have the simple majority needed to pass its first of four plenum votes.

Should Rinawie Zoabi lend her support, it could bring the country one step closer to elections as early as September.

Rinawie Zoabi wrote she was “ending my membership in the coalition” in her resignation letter. But what that means and whether she will actually ally herself with the opposition remains a major open question.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi. (Ariel Jerozolimski)

Will Rinawie Zoabi follow the model of MK Idit Silman, who destroyed the coalition’s majority when she bolted 6 weeks ago, but to date has abstained from votes rather than vote against her former political partners?

Might she follow in the footsteps of rebel MK Amichai Chikli, who never joined his now-former Yamina party in voting to form the coalition and voted against it in key votes after?

Or might Rinawie Zoabi pave a different path with respect to cooperating with or against the current coalition?

While Silman and Chikli left the coalition because they ideologically aligned more with the right-wing opposition, Rinawie Zoabi faces the opposite scenario.

In her resignation letter to Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid — both of whom she surprised with the news — Rinawie Zoabi said that she was opposed to the rightward shift that the government had taken.

The government has moved to shore up its support among pro-settlement hawks, but Rinawie Zoabi’s departure underlines the pitfalls of moving too far in either direction for the ideologically diverse coalition.

“Unfortunately, in recent months, out of narrow political considerations, the leaders of the coalition have chosen to preserve and strengthen its right-wing flank,” she wrote.

Unlike Silman and Chikli, Rinawie Zoabi’s chief complaint is that the coalition failed to support Arab interests.

In her letter, she attacked the deeply divided coalition for adopting “hawkish stances” on issues critical to Arab society. She singled out demolitions of Palestinian homes built without permits and a deeply controversial law barring Palestinians married to Israelis from being granted permanent residency in Israel.

But rather than use her leverage to force the coalition’s hand on the issues, Rinawie Zoabi did not issue any ultimatums. She has no immediate demands or conditions under which she might return to the coalition, her spokesperson told The Times of Israel. “It’s too early to talk about demands. For now, she’s out of the coalition.”

Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to the media at Safra Square in Jerusalem ahead of a right-wing march on April 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Rinawie Zoabi seems uninterested in being lured back to the coalition, she is also unlikely to lend a direct hand to help opposition figures like Benjamin Netanyahu, Bezalel Smotrich, and Itamar Ben Gvir get into power.

Two weeks ago, the majority Arab Joint List party helped foil a Likud-led attempt to immediately instantiate a new government in the existing Knesset by abstaining from the no-confidence measure that would trigger the change if supported by 61 MKs. Rinawie Zoabi may take a similar approach to this specific coalition-ending option.

But the Joint List did signal its willingness to vote for a dissolution bill, and her position toward such a bill is still unknown.

“If the bill is brought on Wednesday, I’ll vote according to my conscience and we’ll see what happens,” Rinawie Zoabi told Channel 12 on Thursday evening, in her first public statement on the matter.

Rinawie Zoabi’s spokesperson declined to comment on whether she feels herself part of the opposition and if she would vote to dissolve the Knesset.

Given that, both the opposition and coalition need to gauge their moves. With the addition of the Meretz lawmaker, the opposition has up to 61 seats, divided between a right-religious bloc of 54 lawmakers, six seats held by the Joint List and one from Rinawie Zoabi.

Silman and Chikli are facing sanctions for breaking away from Yamina that could harm their ability to run if new elections are called, and so are likely to only support a measure that would replace the current government without a new round of elections, known as constructive no-confidence. But the Joint List already says it does not support such a measure if it would make Netanyahu prime minister.

That means that the opposition may wrangle somewhere between 58 and 61 votes against the coalition’s 59 for a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections. Likud will likely apply pressure on Silman and Chikli for their support before bringing the dissolution bill to the Knesset floor, because if the bill were to be defeated, the opposition could not bring it again for 6 months.

In terms of the coalition’s options to influence Rinawie Zoabi, they may be limited.

The biggest coalition lever, a nomination for her to be Israel’s consul general in Shanghai, is now no longer in play, according to her spokesman.

Rinawie Zoabi came into the Knesset directly as number 4 on Meretz’s 6-seat slate. This means that she is not subject to removal by leveraging the Norwegian rule, whereby a minister can resign her post to return to Knesset and bump out the legislator that replaced her.

For now, Meretz is saying that it wants to find a way to work with its wayward MK.

“I intend to do everything in my power to persuade my friend Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi to return to work with the coalition,” read a statement from faction leader Michal Rozin in the hours after Rinawie Zoabi’s departure.

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