‘We’re not just decoration’: New coalition blows are warnings, not yet crisis points

Deeper frustrations than pensions underlie Blue and White’s voting strike, as the party joins resigning minister Eli Avidar in feeling that they always give, but rarely get

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center), and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attend a plenum session in the Knesset, on January 31, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center), and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attend a plenum session in the Knesset, on January 31, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The governing coalition suffered two blows this week, with a voting boycott by Blue and White and the first ministerial resignation. But the parties involved both say their moves are borne more out of frustration for not getting respect from the current coalition than a desire to topple it.

Blue and White followed Ra’am’s playbook on Monday by declaring a week-long voting strike to protest the coalition’s lack of support for its legislative agenda, most acutely including a recent proposal to legalize a long-standing practice of army pension increases for career officers.

The centrist Blue and White is employing the vote boycott tactic just a week after Mansour Abbas’s Islamist party pulled a similar protest.

And on Tuesday, Yisrael Beytenu’s Eli Avidar, who had been serving as a minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office, became the government’s first minister to resign his post and return to the Knesset.

The two back-to-back blows to the government signal that the coalition appears to be biting the hands that feed it, and needs to pay closer attention before these cries for attention convert into cries for elections.

Speaking with The Times of Israel in his Knesset office on Tuesday, Blue and White MK Alon Tal shared that his party’s frustration is rooted in a pervasive feeling of being marginalized in the current coalition.

“We’re not just decoration, we’re the second-largest party in this coalition,” said Tal. Blue and White narrowly holds that distinction with eight seats, behind Yesh Atid’s 17.

Tal described a feeling of “dismissiveness” within the government towards his and Blue and White’s agendas.

Blue and White MK Alon Tal. (Elad Malka)

“I feel like it takes months sometimes to get meetings with ministers and they hold up my legislation on some of the small things,” the first-time MK shared.

Furthermore, Blue and White is frustrated that its legislative goals are not being advanced, including and beyond the current headline issue of army pensions. Blue and White secured commitments in the coalition agreement to advance a legislative platform that includes integrating the ultra-Orthodox community into the military, benefits to reserve soldiers, and expanding national service.

While the relevant bills have passed the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs — the first step for government-backed bills — they have failed in the Knesset. The ultra-Orthodox conscription bill passed its first reading at the end of January, after it was torpedoed by a Meretz MK two weeks prior.

In Tal’s words, “the powers that be don’t prioritize them.”

Regarding the much-discussed issue of pensions themselves, Tal explained the matter as something the army has “always done” to incentivize talent, but it now requires legislation. Last year, the High Court of Justice ruled that there was no statutory basis for army pension plans and, according to Tal, set a deadline for February 28 to pass enabling legislation.

In addition to legislative issues, Tal said Blue and White feels the sting about hold-ups in transferring and creating positions that are important to the party, as well as not being consulted on big policy decisions.

“We’re frustrated that the Innovations Authority was supposed to be transferred over completely to Minister of Science and Technology [Orit Farkash HaCohen] and we gave up a lot of other important things for her to lead this,” Tal said. “We were promised more civil positions in the West Bank to start enforcing positions against lawless youth, but we haven’t gotten the [head count] from the Treasury.”

Then-tourism minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen holds a press conference on encouraging tourism from abroad, in Tel Aviv, on April 27, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We’re frustrated that the government of Israel makes a plan to reduce our high cost of living and doesn’t even confer with the party which happens to hold the chair of the Economic Affairs Committee — through which all [the plan’s measures] have to go through anyway.”

“These are the kind of small insults that build-up,” said Tal. On Monday, legislation over army pensions was the straw that broke Blue and White’s back.

Parallel to Blue and White’s week-long voting strike, Avidar resigned his ministerial post on Tuesday in order to be a voting member of the Knesset.

In a press conference announcing his decision, Avidar told reporters that the government broke its promise to him in not delivering a content-rich portfolio, and implied that the government’s current behavior was similarly disappointing on other coalition members’ goals.

“I worry that the government stands on its obligations to the public that brought it to power,” Avidar said.

In addition to not passing a law to prevent lawmakers under serious criminal indictment from forming a government — which is widely accepted as a move against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Avidar slammed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, calling him “hysterical” in his COVID response and casting doubt on the power rotation slated for August 2023.

“Naftali Bennett has no commitment to the rotation,” said Avidar.

Minister Eli Avidar speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Avidar initially resisted COVID vaccinations and has been against lockdown measures, which he reiterated in his remarks. He also accused the government — which he called the liberal camp — of not competently handling the hard politics of maintaining power.

“The difference between the conservative camp and the liberal camp is that the conservative camp works the whole year, all day, without stop, with an agenda to topple the government,” he said. In contrast, the government involves itself in “selfies, cool TikTok videos.”

“Like this we won’t win,” said Avidar.

However, both Avidar and Blue and White’s Tal made efforts to say that they support the coalition and are not threatening an immediate crisis. But, they stress, the controlling attitude of the coalition needs to change to respect promises and priorities.

“I’ll work to do everything to make this government live out its days. But the government’s survival isn’t a value in itself… the government has to fulfill its promises,” said Avidar. “[The government] should change its behavior and not be worse than the alternative.”

“It’s very important that you make this distinction,” stressed Tal. “We are not bringing down the government. We made a point of voting against the no-confidence resolution [on Monday].”

Regarding the future, Tal expressed his party’s wish to be a full, respected partner in the coalition.

“We want to say we are with the government, but we are not going to give a hand to other government ministries’ legislation when our core agenda is being neglected,” he said. “Bennett and Lapid will have to bring us back in the fold. We want to be back in the fold, but it has to be on the basis of a fair deal.”

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