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Party leaders clamber to defend discordant coalition, head off mutiny

Lapid, Horowitz tout importance of broad-base alliance as Liberman agrees to wait until 2024 on plan that will cut childcare funding, answering Yamina MK’s ultimatum

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on November 7, 2021.  (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on November 7, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid vowed to do whatever is necessary to stabilize his teetering coalition Thursday, as lawmakers compromised on a contentious plan to cut subsidies in a bid to quell a threatened right-wing mutiny that could topple the government and trigger new elections.

Lapid, who cobbled together an unlikely alliance of eight disparate parties following elections last year, ousting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, defended the wide range of ideologies in the government and vowed to work to keep it alive, in his first public comments since Yamina MK Idit Silman announced she was bolting the government, leaving it without a majority.

“Our biggest achievement was not putting together a coalition nobody believed was possible. It was that Israel realized that people with different ideas — right, center, left — want to, and are able to, come together for the common good,” he wrote on Twitter.

“We will do everything so that the government lasts for a long while yet,” added Lapid, who would automatically become interim prime minister if new elections are called. “We will do everything so that the country is not dragged to more toxic and divisive elections.”

His comments came as the coalition scrambled to keep other possible renegades in line and project stability, even as it teetered on the brink of collapse following Silman’s departure.

With Silman exiting the coalition but not the Knesset, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government is hovering on the brink of collapse, losing its majority and now holding just 60 out of 120 seats. The paths forward for the coalition and the Knesset, however, are not immediately clear, with a new election seen as the most likely outcome, but the timeline is still uncertain.

MK Idit Silman, center, MK Abir Kara, left, and others vote on the state budget at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Silman told The Times of Israel Thursday she was leaving the coalition in protest over the “erosion of Jewish identity” within the government, which includes left-wing and Arab parties alongside her own Yamina and other right-wing factions.

Her departure came days after she publicly criticized Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz over his insistence that hospitals abide by rules allowing hametz — leavened products forbidden by religiously observant Jews over Passover — to be brought into facilities.

She denied that Likud had pulled her into the opposition by promising a ministerial portfolio and other political goodies, but claimed that the current coalition had offered to give her the Health Ministry to win back her support, which she said she rejected.

Yamina MK Idit Silman and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz during a hearing of the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee in Jerusalem, on February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Horowitz, the head of the dovish Meretz party, didn’t respond to her claim, but tweeted that he was “doing everything” to keep the government as a going concern.

“I spoke with many ministers and Knesset members. Right left center, secular and religious, Jews and Arabs. They all want the government to continue. We have disagreements. But our desire for an honest, respectable and responsible regime trumps our differences and requires us to be nuanced and pragmatic,” he tweeted.

In a display of that pragmatism, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman agreed Thursday to hold off on a plan that would have slashed daycare subsidies for some children of ultra-Orthodox families, answering one of three demands in an ultimatum issued by Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who threatened earlier in the day to bolt the government if they are not met.

Under the original plan pushed by Liberman, starting in 2023, subsidies for childcare would only be granted if parents work at least 24 hours a week.

Ultra-Orthodox children celebrate Purim in Bnei Brak, on March 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The move would have effectively ended subsidies for some 21,000 children, many of them from ultra-Orthodox families in which the father learns in yeshiva.

Under the new agreement with Orbach, the cut will only go into effect in 2024.

In a statement, the two described the move as aimed at stabilizing the teetering coalition.

“The sides agreed that the gaps between them are not large and that actions should be taken to integrate the [ultra-Orthodox] into the job market and alongside that to protect the Torah-studying public,” the statement read.

Liberman, the head of the seculaist Yisrael Beytenu party, has sought to roll back special benefits granted to Israel’s Haredi community, in which both poverty and a reluctance to enter the workforce are seen as endemic. He and others, led by Lapid, have instead sought to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into society, pushing for them to enter the mandatory military draft and job market in higher numbers.

But the coalition was forced into a corner Thursday when Orbach announced he could leave the governing alliance. Aside from the subsidies, Orbach demanded the convening of the planning commission to approve building plans for 4,000 new homes in the West Bank, and the connection of illegal settlement outposts to the power grid.

“Without a solution to these issues, I can’t stay in the coalition,” Orbach said.

MK Nir Orbach attends an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

To convene the West Bank construction planning committee, the coalition would have to convince Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has been dragging his heels on the affair. Gantz is also speculated to be eyeing a possible political configuration with Likud that would end the current government and form a new one.

The third coalition member that Bennett and Orbach would need to bring on board is Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, who has struggled to deliver electricity connections to illegally built homes in his Negev base.

Tal Schneider and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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