Sa’ar says government has failed, hints at need for stability during transition

Justice minister quotes Abraham Lincoln on governing despite being a lame duck, says vote losses will have ‘severe consequences’; Shaked said to press Orbach to remain in Yamina

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed Supreme Court justices at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on June 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed Supreme Court justices at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on June 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar decried government dysfunction and appealed for stability on Thursday, after the imperiled coalition suffered a series of stinging losses and appeared to be nearing a collapse.

He warned that the political breakdown would result in “severe consequences,” after several coalition lawmakers voted against their political allies this week, defeating the government on several bills.

In the most significant loss for the coalition, lawmakers voted down a crucial piece of legislation that sought to renew the application of Israeli law to Israelis in the West Bank.

Sa’ar had spearheaded the effort to pass the legislation, which related to criminal law and some civil law, and before it went up for a vote had said it was crucial to the government’s survival. Two coalition lawmakers voted against the bill, while several others were absent, dooming it to a 58-52 defeat.

Sa’ar said Thursday, at a swearing-in ceremony for Supreme Court justices at the President’s Residence, that the defeated legislation marked “a failure of the government to fulfill its basic commitments.”

“Beyond political disputes, our governing bodies, all of them, should and need to strengthen the rule of law,” he said, adding that the West Bank settler law had been renewed as a formality for 55 years. Before the vote, he said the bill’s failure would bring “chaos” to the West Bank.

“Legislative work always involves different interests, including political interests,” said Sa’ar, the head of the coalition’s right-wing New Hope party.

“But such a rough trampling of the national and public interest for the sake of political interest has, in my view, severe consequences, far beyond the intolerable consequences of avoiding legislation in this one case,” he said.

A discussion before a vote to raise the minimum wage, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said coalition disunity was the fault of a “cold-blooded breach of faith by many members.”

“I hope a fix for this distorted thing will be in our hands soon,” he said.

He quoted an 1864 speech by US president Abraham Lincoln, who vowed to uphold the government during a lame duck period even were he to be defeated in an upcoming election.

“’I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it. I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it,’” Sa’ar said, quoting Lincoln. “’I shall do my utmost that whoever is to hold the helm for the next voyage, shall start with the best possible chance to save the ship.'”

Sa’ar’s choice of the quote could be seen as alluding to the possibility of the coalition’s collapse.

The justice minister was speaking at the official appointment of four new Supreme Court justices who were elected in February. The group includes Israel’s first Muslim and first Mizrahi woman to serve on the court. Sa’ar applauded the group’s diversity in his welcome speech.

Sa’ar said Tuesday, after the settler bill failed, that he would bring it for a vote again, but acknowledged that the government may be on its last legs.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a discussion and a vote on the minimum wage at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel went through a series of grueling, inconclusive elections and crippling political instability in 2019-2021, before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government took power last year. Recent polls have shown opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc gaining ground with voters and nearing a majority in the Knesset, but have not indicated a clear path to a government for anyone if elections were held today.

In the government’s most recent setbacks, on Wednesday, a series of bills that sought to raise the minimum wage passed preliminary readings in the Knesset, despite government opposition.

Recent days have seen tense infighting inside the coalition, as lawmakers from the Meretz and Ra’am parties rebelled and voted against the government’s position. Adding to the chaos, rumors have swirled about additional coalition defections, and government lawmakers have lobbed accusations against each other.

Yamina’s Nir Orbach lashed Ra’am’s Mazen Ghanaim on the floor of the Knesset for his noncompliance on Monday, while some left-wing coalition lawmakers on Wednesday accused Sa’ar of orchestrating an “alibi” for the government’s collapse by forcing a showdown over doomed legislation, knowing it would fail.

The defeats have boosted efforts by the opposition’s right-religious bloc to maneuver Netanyahu back into power, either via a complicated governmental transition or by bringing down the government and forcing new elections.

Yamina MK Nir Orbach attends a Knesset committee meeting on September 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rumors also swirled that Orbach, a member of Bennett’s right-wing party, was in talks to join Netanyahu’s Likud party. Orbach denied the reports.

If Orbach jumps ship, the government would be left with just 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset, placing it in the minority, although not all opposition lawmakers are aligned. Yamina’s Idit Silman ditched the coalition in April, reducing it to a 60-60 parity with the opposition and touching off the current crisis.

The Walla news site reported on Thursday that Orbach had told Yamina’s No. 2 lawmaker, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, that he will coordinate any upcoming political moves with her ahead of time. Channel 12 also reported the overnight meeting between Orbach and Shaked, and said Bennett had met with Orbach’s associates, with both pressing the MK to remain in the fold.

Some reports have claimed Orbach wants Shaked to ditch the government with him.

Haaretz reported Thursday that Orbach has told Yamina party officials that he is deep in talks with Likud, and will leave Yamina soon, but will not surprise his colleagues with the announcement. Silman did not inform Bennett or other Yamina party members of her departure ahead of time.

Channel 12 said Silman has threatened to release documents that are damaging to Orbach if he presses to oust her from Yamina through the Knesset House Committee, which he chairs.

Orbach has been pegged as a flight risk ever since Silman bolted and has issued ultimatums on his remaining in the coalition that were tied to his support of West Bank settlements. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious opposition bloc has sought defectors from coalition parties on the right whom they are ideologically close to.

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