The political neophyte whipping a Knesset cacophony into coalition harmony

Working tirelessly to keep MKs from Israel’s diverse and fractious government in lockstep while facing down a powerful opposition, Idit Silman is proving she’s no ‘little girl’

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Idit Silman at the Knesset, on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Idit Silman at the Knesset, on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Idit Silman says she wasn’t looking to become the coalition’s whip.

When the former health services executive joined the 24th Knesset earlier this year, she aspired to head the Knesset Health Committee, an important but fairly low profile position, even with the boost it has gotten during the pandemic.

Instead, Silman was handed the post of coalition chair, an important and complex job usually reserved for veteran MKs who know how to wheel and deal their way through the halls of power. It is a tough position in any Knesset, and a near-Sisyphean role in the current ruling coalition, a fickle alliance of eight parties from across the political spectrum called the most diverse government in the state’s history.

With almost no legislative experience from her previous short stints in the legislature, Silman was tasked with making sure the coalition could push ahead with its agenda, shepherding and negotiating bills through committee and to eventual passage, whipping coalition members into staying in line, fighting off opposition attempts to sink bills, and making sure the whole process runs smooth as a whistle.

“Everyone wants to show their constituencies that they are working for them,” she told The Times of Israel recently. But against all odds, she appears to be making the unruly coalition of competing interests work.

“We managed to approve the Jerusalem flag march, we resolved the problem of evacuating settlers from Eviatar,” she said. “We are in continuous dialogue with everyone — the left-wingers from Meretz and Labor, and the right-wingers from New Hope — so that all can have wins to show their voters.”

Silman is only the second woman ever to be given the job, after Sarah Doron, who served as whip for Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And Silman is the first coalition chair to come from a faction as small as Yamina — every other whip has come from a party with at least 26 MKs, and usually 30 or more —  reflecting the unprecedentedly outsized role the seven-member party and its leader, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, have been given in the power-sharing government.

Both her gender and her lack of experience have made her into a punching bag for the opposition, but Silman is not afraid to punch back and maintains that her first two months in office saw many more successes than failures.

Yamina’s Idit Silman MK arrives to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 6, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

As proof, she points to a vote — held just before the Knesset went into recess earlier this month — in which MKs held a secret ballot to choose representatives for the Judicial Selection Committee.

Despite leading the opposition and remaining a political force after some 12 years in power, Likud failed to place a single party member on the panel.

She referred to the vote as her “biggest test,” since the secret ballot meant MKs could not be held accountable for breaking ranks, taking the threat of reprisals, her most powerful coalition cudgel, out of her hands.

“I called or talked face-to-face with each of the 61 coalition members. I told them, ‘Get your head straight on this, if you do not vote according to the coalition’s guidelines, we will lose everything. I made sure, one by one, that they know what they are voting for,” she said.

She noted that only two votes brought to the Knesset floor by the coalition failed, an extension of an order banning Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining citizenship through family unification procedures and a bid to legalize recreational marijuana.

The latter bill, she maintained, was presented despite it being it being clear that it was dead on arrival, she said.

“MK Sharren Haskel insisted on presenting the bill in the plenum, because she wanted to show to her constituency that she is fully committed to the goal,” she said.

(Left to right) Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, MK Idit Silman and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar attend a plenary session at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Silman predicted the law would return in a different formulation after the fall holiday recess, thereby skirting the 6-month waiting period on failed bills.

“The Likud fought for years for this bill and now they let down their voters. This legislation was supposed to help patients who need CBD oil to deal with diseases such as epilepsy and more,” she claimed, though the law would have actually gone far beyond legalizing the hemp by-product, permitting Israeli adults to possess up to 50 grams of marijuana and to grow up to 15 plants for personal use.

Also not mentioned by her is the fact that the bill was sunk not only by the Likud, but by her own coalition-mates from the Ra’am party, which also blocked the extension of the citizenship ban and has proven to be one of the harder factions for Silman to keep in line.

Unless she finds a way to wrangle the ultra-conservative Islamist party into line, her efforts going forward, including what she says will be a second run at the citizenship ban, will be continuously stunted by Ra’am’s refusal to go along.

“They signed a coalition agreement, and it is true that the agreements are binding on everyone, but there are deep differences between the factions and we have not been able to convince them on that point,” Silman admitted, though she still places most of the blame on the Likud.

“They don’t serve as an opposition to the coalition, but an opposition to the Israeli people,” she said.

Likud MK David Bitan (L) speaks with coalition whip Idit Silman (Yamina) during a Knesset plenum session in Jerusalem, on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There are many situations among the members of the coalition in which we do not agree, but our ability to contain these tensions is what matters,” she said.

“Over the last several years, Israel’s people have lost the ability to comprehend complexities, to manage a dialogue that isn’t black-white or right-left. We want to change that, to prove that most Israelis are calm, moderate, cordial.”

No rest (or showers) for the weary

Sliman’s feelings of betrayal from the Likud are natural for a politician who has risen through the ranks of a right-wing normally dominated by the party of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Silman, 40, first entered the Knesset in 2019 as part of the United Right slate, made up of Jewish Home, National Union (since rebranded as Religious Zionism) and Otzma Yehudit, taking the place of neo-Kahanist Michael Ben Ari after he was disqualified.

She eventually moved over to Yamina, and, in March, squeaked into the Knesset when the party’s Alon Davidi quit, moving up her up to the seventh slot.

Ayelet Shaked (right) and Idit Silman take part in a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, on February 10, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

As a relative newcomer to politics, Silman gets mentorship help from New Hope MK Zeev Elkin, a former Likud minister, whom she refers to as a “significant” factor.

“He helps me directly with everything I need. There is also a very warm relationship with Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy,” she adds, referring to the Yesh Atid lawmaker.

She maintains that her alliance with parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum do not take away from her right-wing bona fides, but speak to something larger.

“I am a right-wing politician with a right-wing ideology and values, but I am also a woman who has worked all her life on being able to internalize complexities and a diversity of thought,” she said.

“A right-wing government could have been much easier for us. But this is our country, and it is not just right and left.”

The Rehovot native studied life sciences and sports in school, and started off as a teacher before earning a master’s degree in business and finance. She had a successful career doing marketing for pharmaceutical companies including vaccine-maker Sanofi-Aventis and Calxan, which specializes in anticoagulants.

From there, Silman moved to public health, becoming the head of marketing for Clalit, Israel’s largest health maintenance organization.

Silman conducted the interview while on her way toward the Gaza border region, where she was set to meet with the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two soldiers whose remains are believed to have been held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza since 2014.

The families gather at the Black Arrow memorial site, less than a kilometer from the border, each Friday to demand the return of their sons’ remains, and Silman has adopted their cause as one of her own.

Idit Silman (left) speaks with Lea Goldin, the mother of soldier Hadar Goldin, whose remains are being held captive in Gaza, at a gathering outside the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, on June 20, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But health concerns remain front and center for her, and she spent the first few minutes speaking about a phone call she just had with the family of a boy due to undergo a complicated bone marrow surgery, who requires a specific medication not subsidized by the Health Ministry.

She would report later that she managed to get some help for the family, but at that point she believed her efforts had failed. “These are difficult moments,” she said.

“We get dozens of requests from the public with respect to health issues,” she continued. “There are cases in which we fail to help. It’s not always a matter of life and death… But that specific phone call involved a little boy, and it tears me apart.”

In the Knesset, Silman says she works non-stop at her job, and unlike other MKs, doesn’t leave the building for a nearby hotel when she wants to get some rest.

“Eight factions is a very complex thing. I am physically in the plenary all the time, Sunday through Thursday,” she said.

The Knesset plenum holds sessions Monday to Wednesday every week, with debates and votes often going through the night. Faced with a powerful opposition led by Netanyahu, coalition members need to be ready to run to the plenum 24 hours a day.

Many Knesset members essentially live out of their offices during days when the plenum is in session, napping, eating and showering there, but because Silman lacks seniority, her office does not have a private bathroom or shower.

“It’s a bigger room on the government floor, but there’s no shower. Since I am physically in the building Sunday through Thursday non-stop, I have to use the Knesset’s gym to shower or use some colleagues’ chambers,” she said. “I do not sleep much, two or three hours a night. I watch the plenum all the time. I am lucky to be a light sleeper.”

Unacceptable attacks and slurs

Silman is confident that the Likud will grow fatigued from its constant efforts to undermine the coalition.

“How long they will be able to keep it up? Some of their MKs will get tired eventually. The only means they have is the lengthy nightly filibusters. I have noticed that most prominent Likud members, such as Avi Dichter, Nir Barkat, Amir Ohana or Yuli Edelstein, and even Netanyahu, do not get up to the podium and preach like the others.”

MK Idit Silman leads an Arrangements Committee meeting in the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

What she has grown tired of are the attacks and slurs thrown at her over the fact that she is a woman. Members of United Torah Judaism and Likud have called her a “little girl.”

She recalled that Likud MK Miki Zohar, who formerly held her job, recently told her, “I expect you to behave and answer me like a good girl.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, on May 6, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“In any other workplace, such behavior would not be acceptable. Outside the Knesset, people do not use such flagrant language,” she said.

She blamed the insults on a feeling among politicians that they are in constant campaign mode, after two years in which Israel went through four nearly consecutive elections.

“A campaign should be limited in time, and following that things should go back to normal. Campaigns have shtick and gimmicks, but that’s not real life.”

MK Betzalel Smotrich and right-wing demonstrators at a protest against the unity government outside the home of Yamina parliament member Ayelet Shaked in Tel Aviv, on June 3, 2021. The poster reads “Idit, stop this! Don’t give a hand to a left-wing government!” (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Silman sees the chauvinist attacks as part of a concerted campaign by the opposition to break her. But she says the attacks on her and other right-wingers who joined the coalition, terming them “traitors” for joining a government with center-left and Arab elements, are even worse.

“I am very proud of the coalition we formed,” she said. “I want all the people of Israel to see the good in our complex coalition, whose essence is ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ We’ve all compromised to make this coalition happen and we’ve all gathered around a common dialogue. It’s a big deal, and now we’re in prime time, and I’m proud of that. So I don’t care if they call me a little girl.

“I am aware that our country is very complex, and no one promised it would be easy. I knew into what I was entering, taking this role. And there are mistakes we are making. But should such mistakes mean the dismantling of the government? No. In the end, those paying the price for these ongoing campaigns are the country’s citizens.”

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