This is the political review I have been promising, dear readers – or at least the first installment. As you read, below, you will be able to understand why I tabled this discussion time and again. It has been a balagan, a state of confusion, which rides on a tide of rumors and speculations.
I am among the legion of Israeli voters that longs to see an end to our current governing coalition, headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Yamina), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Blue & White), from right below.
We would have preferred a speedy dissolution of the government, so that our nation might get on with the urgent business at hand during these troubled times. Instead, what we have been witnessing is a series of missteps and ill-advised positions that suggest weakness and incompetency. Each leads us closer to the end without quite getting us there.
Back in mid-April, Bennett exhibited a momentary sense of clarity and – according to World Israel News – declared that “this strategy did not work.” The strategy he was referring to, the strategy upon which his government is based, is one of establishing a coalition that spans from left to right.
Well, we could have told him that. There could be no unifying ideology in such a government: just a parve policy of not doing anything that upsets the other members of the coalition. Preservation of the coalition then becomes its raison d’être. Indeed, several times Lapid has cautioned coalition members to not actively embrace policies that other members could not accept. This was not a matter of negotiating between positions to reach a compromise, which is normal political practice; he was recommending the stifling of deeply held convictions.
Bennett apparently expressed his thoughts on the failure of the coalition strategy after Idit Silman (Yamina), who had been coalition whip, announced her resignation and Amichai Chikli was talking of doing the same. For people such as Silman stifling of strongly held convictions didn’t work.
According to WIN, Bennett was thinking of moving back to the right himself.
That thought on Bennett’s part lasted for about three minutes, possibly because he quickly perceived that he would not have received a warm welcome on the right.
But the fact that he even had this thought, if WIN was correct, tells us a great deal.
The coalition has teetered on the edge numerous times. The factor of greatest instability has been the participation of the Islamist Ra’am party, headed by Mansour Abbas. Abbas – guided and advised by the Islamist Movement that he represents – is a master game-player. Several times he has come close to leaving the coalition; on one occasion he held party participation in abeyance.
Each time Abbas has agreed to continue to support the coalition, it has been after consultations with Lapid during which he secured one guarantee or another. (In a Jerusalem Post interview this past Friday, Lapid referred to Abbas as a friend, which also tells us a whole lot.)
This same pattern of behavior was exhibited by MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the far-left Meretz. She announced her resignation from the coalition on May 19, citing what had transpired at the Temple Mount and at the funeral of Shereen Abu Akleh as reasons for her departure, and declaring that her decision was irreversible. This generated a crisis for the coalition, as her departure – following that of Silman – reduced the coalition to a very vulnerable 59 mandates (a minority).
On May 22, accompanied by local Arab authorities, she met with Lapid and then announced her return to the coalition. No one was saying exactly what she secured to entice her back, but it apparently involved budgets for the Arab community.
While I cannot prove it, there is considerable reason to believe that her (supposedly irreversible) resignation was announced to this very end.
There have been other signs of weakness and disarray in the coalition. Over the course of a few weeks, three high-level members of Bennett’s staff resigned.
First it was Bennett’s chief-of-staff Tal Gan-Zvi, who had been with the prime minister for a decade. Then his diplomatic advisor Shimrit Meir (pictured). One of Bennett’s closest aides, with extensive experience as a political-security commentator, Meir reportedly did not get along well with Bennett’s other advisors.
Just yesterday, the resignation of Bennett’s spokesman Matan Sidi was announced; additionally Sidi had managed all office communication including with the Mossad and the National Security Council.
Bennett’s office chief and personal assistant, Naomi Sasson, resigned last week as well; she had been with Bennett since 2016.
There are differing conclusions that might be drawn from these multiple resignations. Either these individuals wanted to jump ship because they saw the government failing, or they were discontent with policy and could no longer sustain their relationship with this government.
Whatever the case in each instance, these multiple resignations signal a floundering government. They will all be replaced, but Bennett will undoubtedly suffer from the absence of individuals upon whom he had relied.
Four days ago, Bennett put out an open letter, 28-pages long, to Israel’s “Silent Zionist Majority.” It was a letter that struck me as exceedingly tasteless and ill-advised if not down-right pathetic. Essentially he was pleading for active support from the public so that his government would not fall. Talk about an admission that it was about to fall! And talk about the self-deluded conclusion that that the “Zionist majority” would be with him.
His claim, essentially, was that he had saved the country by cobbling together his diverse coalition. The choice, according to Bennett was: “To move forward with a functioning state, or to descend again into chaos, internal hatred, external weakness and the enslavement of the state to the needs of one man [Netanyau].”
Bennett needs to be reminded that he is governing with a pathetic (a ridiculous) six mandates, whereas Netanyahu’s Likud garnered 29 mandates in the last election and according to the polls would pull down more were another election held now.
Needless to say, both Likud and Religious Zionists roundly attacked this letter.
Most pertinent, however, was Herb Keinon’s comment on the letter in the JPost (emphasis added):
“His message was clear: if this government collapses, then the country is in danger of failing again ‘because of internal conflicts.’ In other words, if this government collapses, so too could the state.
“Set aside the question as to whether that really is the case, and think for a minute of the message this sends to Israel’s enemies. The letter is addressed to the ‘silent Zionist majority,’ but the leaders of Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Iran also have access to it. And what they must hear when reading it is the prime minister of the Jewish State saying that the country is in such a precarious state, that a change of government could bring about its downfall…
“Bennett’s year in power has proven that the country can carry on and thrive without Netanyahu. Likewise, the country can carry out and thrive without Bennett and his ‘government of national salvation.’ It will also carry on and thrive if Netanyahu comes back.”
I would suggest that Bennett’s abysmal judgement in writing this letter is proof in and of itself that he should not be head of our government.
We come then to the events of the last couple of days. On Monday night, the Judaea and Samaria Law was brought to the Knesset plenum by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar (chair, New Hope). It failed to pass by a vote of 58-52.
This is a law that should have passed without a problem, a law that has passed routinely every five years since 1967. It applies civilian Israeli law to the residents of Judea & Samaria without applying sovereignty to the land. It is crucial for the nation, and critical for those residents.
But this law fell victim to a political battle of considerable dimensions. The Zionist Opposition – Likud, Religious Zionists, Shas and UTJ – is strongly in favor (the Arab Joint List is not). Yet the Zionist Opposition refused to support it. This was expected.
In many quarters these parties, in particular those headed by Netanyahu and Smotrich, are being very soundly criticized for doing this, because they have placed political considerations ahead of the good of the country.
This is not a surprise, this happens routinely. But this was such a no-brainer in terms of the need for the law – which should have had precedence over anything political – that it has raised the ire of many people.
My response, however, is less absolutist. I am disappointed, uneasy, and yet I comprehend what is going on. The point that the Opposition was seeking to make was that the ruling Coalition should have been able to carry the day and pass the legislation. But there were members of the Coalition who absented themselves (Mansour Abbas among them), while Mazen Ghnaim of Ra’am and Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi voted against it. The fact that they could not pass the legislation without support from outside the Coalition exposes an essential weakness in the government, a weakness possibly sufficient to bring it down.
“Tonight’s vote once again proves that this government depends on anti-Zionist [MKs] and cannot provide for the basic security needs of the Jewish people,” declared Smotrich. While Likud faction head MK Yariv Levin said, “This means the end for this failed government that’s incapable of passing Zionist legislation and has no right to exist.”
The possibility of bringing the government down over this is predicated on efforts to get members of the Coalition, who find themselves unable to further tolerate their participation in the government, to jump ship and come over to the other side. There has been talk of this on a regular basis, and it is hoped that this vote might turn the trick. And so, there is method to the madness of the Zionist Opposition.
And it is Gideon Sa’ar who makes this gamble most viable.
On introducing the legislation, Sa’ar said: “The regulations [in the legislation] contain…critical arrangements that are essential for the functioning of the State of Israel and the security of Israeli citizens. Every single aspect of life in Judaea and Samaria hinges on this legislation.”
The over-riding question, then, is whether he will choose to remain in a government that did not succeed in passing it. There have been rumors floating for a long time regarding negotiations between Sa’ar and members of Likud regarding what he would receive, were he to come home. The rumors are in the air now, with regard to Monday night’s vote. And the thought is that other members of New Hope who had come from Likud – Sharren Haskel? Ze’ev Elkin? – might return with him.
What will happen? I do not know.
I have had scant respect for Sa’ar during the past year. So, he hates Netanyahu. He has made this clear. He focused on his promise to his voters not to sit with Netanyahu. But for Sa’ar to consider sitting with an Islamist as preferable is something I have never understood. This would be his chance to redeem himself.
If some members of the Coalition were to rejoin Likud, the likely next step by the Opposition would be to call for a no-confidence vote that could bring the government down. That vote might trigger an election. Or if numbers were adequate, it might set into place what is called constructive no-confidence. If the Opposition were able to put together a coalition of 61 or more mandates, then this new coalition would form the new government without an election.
All of this is tentative, speculative. But it is in the heads of leaders of the Zionist Opposition.
Lastly, I mention that the current Judea & Samaria law does not lapse until the end of this month. It is expected that the legislation will come before the plenum again in the next three weeks. My confidence in the Zionists of the Opposition, most particularly the members of Religious Zionist Party, is that they would not let the legislation lapse without passing it, in some formulation, by June 30. They have indulged in a political gambit, but I believe will step forward as necessary. This has happened before.
So, we are in the “wait and see” mode.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner.