Silman’s coalition defection catches her political partners off-guard

PM and coalition MKs were not informed before the whip quit the coalition she was entrusted with upholding, imperiling the government

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

Idit Silman, then-head of the Arrangements Committee, leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset, November 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Idit Silman, then-head of the Arrangements Committee, leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset, November 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Coalition whip Idit Silman’s shocking announcement that she was defecting from the coalition sent political shockwaves across Israel on Wednesday morning, including in her own party and coalition — neither of which she apparently informed before she resigned with a letter to the prime minister that was rapidly leaked to the media.

“My key values are inconsistent with [the coalition’s] current reality. I hear the voices in the field and  the sincere protest raised by the voters who supported us and with whose support we were elected, and also to the pain of those who did not vote for us but belong to the national camp. I can no longer bear the damage to values ​​and causes that are essential and right,” she wrote in her resignation letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

In the letter, Silman specifically accused the government of undermining Israel’s Jewish character, writing, “I will not abet the harming of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”

Her comments were made in the context of a fight that Silman picked this week with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, which was ostensibly about religious observance but, given the largely moot nature of the dispute, many assumed was a pretext for Silman to differentiate herself from her left-wing coalition partners.

Silman attacked Horowitz over a letter that Horowitz sent to hospital administrators urging them to obey a High Court of Justice decision whereby hospitals could not bar people from bringing in non-kosher-for-Passover food, known as hametz, during the holiday, which starts next week.

Silman said Horowitz’s actions crossed a “red line,” but many shrugged off the issue, including Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, who pointed to the fact that the order has been in place since 2020 and “nothing has changed,” in that hospitals continue to request that people not bring in hametz, nor do they serve hametz.

While opposition members weighed in with varying opinions about the seriousness of the threat to Passover kashrut, politicians from both sides of the aisle openly expressed doubt that the exchange would mushroom into a full crisis. Including the prime minister himself, they were thus caught off-guard by Silman’s Wednesday resignation, for which Silman seemingly used the hametz fight as a pretext.

As recently as Tuesday, Bennett — who heads Silman’s Yamina party — told reporters that the public conflict would blow over.

“If everyone can calm down, and not do the political rounds by sending letters and issuing instructions,” like Horowitz did, “and on the other hand, not declare ultimatums,” referring to Silman, “we can straighten this out.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Judea and Samaria Division military base, near the West Bank settlement of Beit El, April 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Horowitz, who was in Ukraine to visit the Israeli government’s field hospital there, similarly played down the significance of the spat with Silman on Monday, saying the coalition would survive it.

Several ministers and coalition MKs, including Kahana — also of Silman’s Yamina party — gave radio interviews Wednesday morning in which they said they had only learned of Silman’s news via the media, and in Kahana’s case, immediately before joining the on-air broadcast.

“I found out about it right now. I hope it is reversible,” said Kahana. “This government is doing good things for the people. It was formed because of a political exigency, but I think it is very worthwhile for it to continue to function.”

Another politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Times of Israel that the shock within the coalition was genuine and deep.

“I was having dinner with a bunch of [left and center-left] MKs last night… it was 11:30 p.m. and they were telling me that the hametz issue was nothing and that this government would carry on for a long time,” the source said, adding that the coalition was blindsided.

Doubting that the hametz issue itself figured in the coalition whip’s decision to bail, some argued that her defection was more likely about Yamina facing pressure from its right-wing base.

“This is about her political future. Bennett lost Yamina,” said the political source. “She’s thinking about what’s next for her.”

Many in Yamina’s base were critical of Bennett’s decision to form a government with left-wing and Arab partners, and have only become increasingly disenchanted over the government’s past 10 months in operation.

MK Idit Silman (left) speaks with MK Mansour Abbas at the Knesset on October 11, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The grumblings among Yamina’s voters that after running on one set of promises the party realized another include criticism that the government has not delivered on restoring law and order to the Negev and is insufficiently supportive of West Bank Israeli settlements, both core issues in the Yamina platform.

Sources say Silman has long been uncomfortable with elements of her coalition and has been under constant pressure from the right-wing opposition.

“Silman definitely felt general discomfort in this coalition, but the specific issue of hametz is just an excuse,” said Yair Sheleg, an expert in national-religious politics with the Shalom Hartman Institute. “I think she already decided that she’s leaving and then searched for an excuse. The whole blow-up a few days ago was a game born to serve the excuse of resigning today.”

Silman, appointed whip in her first Knesset term with limited political experience, had been minimized as a “little girl” by opposition parliamentarians. In November of last year, she claimed she was attacked at a gas station, and opposition members — including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — accused her of fabricating the story.

On Wednesday, opposition members, led by Netanyahu, embraced her decision and enthusiastically welcomed her “back” into the right-wing fold.

In a video statement, the Likud leader congratulated Silman on her resignation, and said, “I call on all those elected by the national camp to join Idit and come home. You will be welcomed with complete respect and with open arms.”

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at his party’s faction meeting in the Knesset, February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s likely that several right-wing opposition parliamentarians were in on Silman’s plan. Likud MK Miki Zohar told Army Radio that he had spoken with Silman for an hour Tuesday, and United Torah Judaism chair Moshe Gafni issued a statement in which he said he had been in communication with her over the past week. Hebrew-language media has also reported that Silman possibly struck a deal with Netanyahu to defect, in part for a chance at being health minister in a potential new government.

Silman, for her part, said she is aligning with right-wing opposition elements and will support further defections to their camp, in order to possibly form a new government within the existing Knesset, without new elections.

“I will continue to try to persuade my friends to return home and form a right-wing government,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “I know I am not the only one who feels this way. Another government can be formed in this Knesset.”

Silman’s departure turns the coalition’s razor-thin majority into parity of 60-60 seats with the opposition. The government, which has already struggled to pass key bills, is unlikely to make legislative progress and is vulnerable to dissolution.

If the government is unable to restore its majority, the two leading scenarios for change are either going to elections or creating a new government within the Knesset.

With one more defector, the opposition could potentially topple the government, vote to dissolve the Knesset, and bring the country to its fifth election cycle since 2019, but it would need full opposition support, including from the six-member Joint List of mainly Arab parties, in such a scenario. Otherwise, it would need further defectors.

In line with the coalition agreement, if the Knesset were to dissolve and new elections scheduled, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would become interim prime minister, until a new government is seated.

Alternatively, the opposition could cobble together a coalition of at least 61 members and create a new government within the seated Knesset, thus avoiding handing the torch to the centrist Lapid. To do so, it would need to pull away seven members of the current coalition, given that the Joint List would not lend its hand to the formation of a right-wing government.

Eyes will likely be on Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s eight-seat Blue and White party, as well as right-wing elements of the current coalition, as potential targets for opposition courting.

A third scenario, whereby the government could hobble along until confronted with the challenge of passing its next budget — failure of which would trigger dissolution — will only become relevant next year.

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