Shocks and Crises Leave Israel's Government Battered and Uncertain

In one week two ministers resigned, an Yisrael Beiteinu MK refused to join the coalition, and Naftali Bennett is mocking Benjamin Netanyahu openly.

An illustration of a government meeting. Kahlon gets up to leave. Netanyahu asks him, "Where are you going?" Kahlon replies:"Just to the Bathroom."
Eran Wolkowski

On Friday evening, Prime Minister Netanyahu was struck by three blows that of course meant a restless weekend at 1 Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

1. The thunderous departure of the environmental affairs minister, Avi Gabbay. 2. The aggressive insistence by the Habayit Hayehudi chairman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to establish a “commission” to study the workings of the security cabinet. 3. An opinion poll released by Israel Radio showing that Likud could lose its hold on the government if a new center-right party runs in the next election.

At the press conference with the newly appointed defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu said Yisrael Beiteinu’s joining the cabinet would mean greater “stability” in government and the coalition. More signs of this stability: In one week two ministers resigned, a Yisrael Beiteinu MK refused to join the coalition, and two MKs from a governing party are threatening to go rogue in voting on the state budget.

And above all, the chairman of a coalition party is mocking the prime minister openly, challenging him with an ultimatum and initiating a crisis that could lead who knows where if it’s not resolved by when Lieberman is sworn in this week. Apparently there’s no choice and Netanyahu will backtrack.

Netanyahu’s coalition only entered its second year last week. It’s still young. But the profusion of shocks and crises, the murky atmosphere and bad blood are more like a battered coalition in its third year.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has said he intends to run for national leadership; that is, to bring down Netanyahu. That’s what Gabbay has said: “I am realistic enough to know my place and my value. I did not expect Kulanu to resign with me. But in the end, every crack weakens the ruling structure. Everyone must contribute his own crack, and I believe I contributed mine.”

Gabbay says he has been suffering stomach pangs for a long time in this government with this prime minister. “I was very disturbed by his lack of statesmanship, the loss of values, his aggressiveness and his incitement when everything is cynical with him and everything is allowed,” he said.

For Gabbay, Ya’alon’s replacement with Lieberman was the last straw. He felt he would be lying to himself if he stayed.

Gabbay admits that not everyone in Kulanu shares his opinion; he says only MK Eli Alalouf identifies with him 100 percent. When I asked Gabbay what he intended to do in the unknown amount of time until the next election, he had a one-word answer: “Politics.”

He does not intend to go back to the business sector, where he was very successful. Like Ya’alon and former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, and perhaps Kulanu’s chairman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, he could play a role in a new movement or movements to bring down Netanyahu. (Either way, Kahlon’s weekend in Italy was ruined by the resignation of his good friend, who founded Kulanu with him.)

The moment the coalition of 66 MKs is approved in the Knesset, which is likely early in the week, the dust will settle and events will move on. But the residue has accumulated and the expectations will fulfill themselves in the end.

It could happen over some foolish thing, something unexpected that develops under the radar. In any case, a severe cabinet crisis ensued Friday after Bennett called Netanyahu’s proposal “spin,” preached at him that the inner cabinet was dealing with human life, and warned Netanyahu to stop railing against him and Habayit Hayehudi and start addressing issues he was elected to address.

Bennett’s angry response stemmed from two reasons. On Friday he read in the media that according to anonymous sources, MKs from his party object to his conduct toward Netanyahu and believe he has painted himself into a corner. Bennett could easily see the fingerprints of Netanyahu’s people trying to incite the party’s MKs against its chairman.

The second reason is the infuriating, inflaming and divisive post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page decrying “the media” and the left for not coming out against the alleged rape of a mentally challenged woman by Palestinians, a rape that it is not clear even occurred.

Bennett was shocked. People who talked to him heard his harsh response to the post, the alleged rape and the person responsible for the post. This is partly why Bennett took a hard line on the security-cabinet issue when it seemed the conflict was about to end.