After spending several days on the fence amid intense pressure from both political camps, Yamina MK Nir Orbach announced Tuesday that he will back an emerging coalition — of which his party is a part — that would oust long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Orbach, whose support gives the eight-party “change government” an anticipated 61-59 majority in a Knesset confirmation vote set for Sunday, explained that his decision was difficult but necessary to break the yearslong political stalemate and prevent Israel from “falling apart.” “I chose what’s good for the country,” he said.
In response, Religious Zionism party chief Bezalel Smotrich said Orbach had broken away from the religious Zionism ideology and called him a “confused man who has lost his way.”
Orbach, seen as a key swing vote on the coalition, has drawn attention because he had said he might resign from the Knesset rather than back the new coalition his party chief Naftali Bennett agreed to form with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. His replacement, the next on the Yamina slate, would be a party member who has declared full support for the coalition.
The Knesset vote on confirming the coalition will be held on Sunday. The defection of even a single MK could thwart its formation.
Orbach has been facing intense protests near his home in Petah Tikva by Netanyahu supporters calling on him to oppose the nascent government. He and other Yamina members have also seen threats directed against their families.
The emerging eight-faction coalition is unprecedentedly diverse, spanning right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties and only enjoying the narrowest parliamentary majority possible.
“I have decided to end the stalemate in Israeli politics. I have decided to vote in favor of the unity government,” Orbach wrote at the beginning of a lengthy Facebook post explaining his decision.
“I am not taking this path with happiness or enthusiasm, I am taking it precisely because it is unclear, but the Israeli nation doesn’t fear a long-winding path; it fears the stalemate,” he wrote.
“This isn’t a simple decision but it is necessary in this situation, where we get up every morning to over 700 days of leadership instability, civil crisis, violent discourse, a feeling of chaos. On the verge of civil war. No longer a light unto the nations.”
Orbach recalled the history of Zionism, noting its goal of creating an “exemplary society” that would serve as a beacon of justice and morality.
“An exemplary society can include rightists and leftists in one home. An exemplary society should shun marginal forces. In this exemplary society, religious Zionism… should have a central place,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the political religious Zionism from which I came, which knew how to cooperate with both right and left, is no longer. It has been appropriated by forces that don’t represent me or the community I came from,” he wrote, criticizing the far-right Smotrich, who has lambasted his former partner Yamina for joining the new government.
“Unfortunately, there is no connection between the statesmanlike religious Zionism and the Religious Zionism party,” Orbach charged.
Orbach added that his party had sought to form a right-wing government, and that he personally had invested much effort in that attempt. He said the failure to form such a coalition and the formation of the “change government” should serve as a “wake-up call” and an opportunity to heal rifts between divided communities and ideological camps in Israel.
“In the choice between destabilizing the country and a government propped up by [Islamist Ra’am party leader] Mansour Abbas, I chose what seems to me to be what’s good for the country,” he said. “We are taking responsibility in order to prevent us from falling apart.
“I pray to God that, indeed, the choice I made is the correct choice and I am full of hope that that is the case.”
In response, Smotrich lambasted Orbach and said Yamina had cut its links to religious Zionism.
“An overwhelming majority of religious Zionism’s rabbis, leaders and voters, who vehemently oppose this betrayal of morals and voters and the formation of a left-wing-Arab government, are not Nir Orbach’s religious Zionism. Only he is, of course,” Smotrich tweeted.
“I wanted to write that he’s a nobody. But he’s so arrogant, insolent, untruthful and power-seeking that he would come over to us immediately had we offered him a reserved spot,” Smotrich charged.
He called Orbach’s post “a collection of empty, superficial clichés full of contradictions by a confused man who has lost his way.”
Bennett reportedly intends to hand Orbach a senior role in the new government, with some reports saying he would be named settlements minister.
The Knesset Guard decided Sunday to up the security around Orbach and fellow Yamina MK Idit Silman after they were targeted by activists.
On Monday, Channel 12 news published a screenshot of a message that Orbach received inviting him to his own funeral and accusing him of supporting “a government that harmed Shabbat and Torah study and brought Reform [Jews] and assimilation to the Holy Land.”
Associates of Orbach said in response: “Any protest can be legitimate to a certain point. Sending this message crosses a red line. It is time to come to our senses, lower the flames of hate and advance unity, because what unites us is greater than what separates us.”
Netanyahu’s son Yair was briefly blocked from posting on social media sites for publicly sharing Orbach’s address ahead of a protest outside his home. Orbach said in response that he supported the premier’s son’s right to free speech.
On Monday, Silman told Channel 13 news in an interview that she felt “unsafe” and detailed some of the threats being directed against her and her young children.
Silman was being considered for the challenging role of coalition whip, political sources told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site. She could get the post since she has a good relationship with members of all parties, including the Islamist Ra’am, the sources said.
Only one woman has served as coalition whip in Israel’s history — Likud’s Sarah Doron in 1988.
At least four of the seven Yamina lawmakers in the Knesset have now been given additional protection amid threats directed at them over the party joining up with MK Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. Bennett, the prime minister-designate, and No. 2 Ayelet Shaked had their security beefed up last week.
At a faction meeting of his Likud party on Sunday, Netanyahu said he condemned all incitement and violence but claimed that his allies were being singled out unfairly for criticizing their political opponents.
Netanyahu also made the unfounded claim that “we are witnesses to the greatest election fraud in the history of the country and in my opinion the history of democracies.”
Tal Schneider and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.