Yamina lawmaker Idit Silman denied Thursday that her shock defection from the coalition a day earlier had come with promises of a sweetheart gig in a possible future Likud-led government, but said she was being heavily wooed by the current leadership with offers of ministerial positions, including the post of Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz.
Silman’s bombshell announcement Wednesday has sent shockwaves through the political arena. Depriving the coalition of its Knesset majority — it now has the support of precisely 60 of the 120 MKs — her resignation has left the government on the brink of collapse, boosting opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s quest to return to the premiership after 10 months, and setting off a flurry of speculation over other MKs who could potentially bolt.
According to Hebrew media reports, Silman’s departure from the coalition as a renegade MK was engineered by the Likud, which agreed to grant her the job of health minister if the party forms the next government, and is now actively looking to recruit other coalition MKs from the right side of the political spectrum.
“I’ve been given no promises for the future. There are no agreements,” Silman told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site Zman Yisrael in an exclusive interview Thursday. “On the contrary, I’m being offered everything to stay. I’m being offered the role of health minister. But I won’t go for it.”
In Silman’s telling, she made the decision to resign on her own, in the middle of the night. At 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, she got out of bed, told a friend who isn’t connected to politics of her plan, steeled herself, and dialed Likud MK Yariv Levin, a close ally of Netanyahu who led coalition negotiations a year ago, to tell him she was leaving the coalition.
“I did it all on my own,” she said. “I surprised everyone. Netanyahu too. They didn’t know I would make an announcement like this. Nobody knew. They were in shock, but I’m at peace with myself.”
“There was no agreement about placements [on the Likud electoral slate] for me. Likud is willing to give me everything, but there’s no agreement,” she said, denying any opportunism on her part. “I don’t need to be given [cabinet] roles. I had a great job. I was coalition whip — what more do you need? But that’s not the point.”
Her break came days after she publicly criticized Horowitz over his insistence that hospitals abide by rules allowing hametz — leavened products forbidden by religiously observant Jews over Passover — to be brought into facilities. Many took notice of the criticism, noting that as coalition whip, whose job is to keep lawmakers on the same page, she normally avoided public spats within the fractious alliance.
Horowitz, who would lose his ministerial post if Silman accepted the alleged offer, declined to comment to The Times of Israel. The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who cobbled together the coalition of eight disparate parties from across the political spectrum last spring and is set to take over the premiership next year, on Thursday defended the wide range of ideologies in the government and vowed to work to keep it alive, in his first public comments since Silman’s announcement.
“Our biggest achievement was not putting together a coalition nobody believed was possible. It was that Israel realized that people with different ideas — right, center, left — want to, and are able to, get together for the common good,” he wrote on Twitter.
“We will do everything so that the government lasts for a long while yet,” added Lapid, who would automatically become interim prime minister if new elections are called. “We will do everything so that the country is not dragged to more toxic and divisive elections.”
Silman insisted that her problems with the coalition went far beyond the hametz row, specifically citing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s use of the term West Bank to describe areas beyond the 1967 ceasefire line, instead of Judea and Samaria, biblical terminology favored by Jewish nationalists.
“The hametz was just the final blow. It was the erosion of Jewish identity,” she said. “I saw it time and time again. After comes the erosion of values. Prime Minister Bennett talking about the ‘West Bank,’ wow. If I’m for the ‘West Bank,’ I’ll join Yesh Atid.”
By quitting the coalition instead, Silman left the government one lawmaker shy of a majority, though it can still attempt to stay afloat with only 60 MKs. Opposition figures are said to be pursuing several other coalition lawmakers from the right, including several from Silman and Bennett’s Yamina party, in hopes of either collapsing the coalition and triggering new elections or forming their own alternate government.
Despite the technical complexities in switching governments via a no-confidence motion and not elections, and the near-quixotic goal of bringing over another seven lawmakers (the opposition’s Joint List of Arab parties is not part of any coalition calculus), Silman insisted it was possible, deflecting any blame should the result instead be new elections.
“If new elections are called, it won’t be because of me. You can, right now, create a right-wing government, no problem,” she said. “[New Hope party leader] Gideon Sa’ar won’t cross the electoral threshold [to reenter the Knesset]. Yamina is in trouble. We can create a government. Bennett can be prime minister or defense minister, and rotate with Netanyahu.”
Silman confirmed reports that she had met with Yamina’s Abir Kara — seen as a prime defection target — who she said claimed to have agreements with other lawmakers willing to bolt, but denied being involved in those maneuvers.
However, Kara told the Kan public broadcaster that while Likud was offering him the world, the party would not be able to deliver on an alternate coalition.
He said he suggested to Silman and Amichai Chikli, another Yamina lawmaker who has refused to cooperate with the coalition, that they form a new faction together “and be three critical fingers that get everything we want in the existing coalition.” But he said the idea has so far not panned out.
Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who like Kara met with Netanyahu Wednesday, did threaten to leave the coalition, saying that unless the government reverses its plan to cancel daycare subsidies for yeshiva students, convenes a planning commission to approve building plans for 4,000 new homes in the West Bank, and connects illegal settlement outposts to the power grid, he’ll follow Silman and Chikli.
He and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman later agreed to reverse the slashed daycare subsidies.
The moves came a day after a Yamina official told The Times of Israel that Yamina had managed to “stop the bleeding,” after Bennett held marathon talks with party MKs and other coalition faction leaders.
In a show of support for his crumbling party, Matan Kahana, a Yamina minister who is not in the Knesset, indicated Thursday that he was lining up behind the coalition.
In a Facebook post, Kahana assailed the opposition and said he was “praying for the continued existence of this important government and doing my best to ensure this happens.”
“We all knew we could not fulfill our deepest ideological wishes” within the big tent coalition, he wrote, but moved ahead with it “in order to save Israel from the place it was careening toward.”
But on Thursday evening, in a sign that the party was still struggling to hold the line, it officially declared Chikli a defector, a move it had previously avoided as it held out hopes of working with the renegade MK.
By doing so, the party damaged Chikli’s ability to run in upcoming elections or hold a government post, and sent a message to others in the party that they could be next.
Knesset rules prevent a defector from running with any faction currently sitting in the Knesset in the next elections, or from serving as a minister in another government.
The move could also spur Kara, Chikli, and Silman to form their own breakaway faction, which would shield them from the penalties.
Silman told ToI that she was hoping to avoid the official renegade label.
“I don’t want them to declare me a defector,” she said. “I haven’t defected from anywhere.”
Silman’s full interview in Hebrew is available at ToI sister site Zman Yisrael.