Analysis |

COVID Omicron Variant Exposes Israeli Coalition's Weakest Link

Bennett may pay dearly for underestimating the man who could in the future be his 61st vote in the Knesset

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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The cabinet meeting on Sunday, with Prime Minister Bennett at left.
The cabinet meeting on Sunday, with Prime Minister Bennett at left.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The Bennett-Lapid government, also known as “the government of change,” is not honoring the name that its supporters gave it.

On Sunday, it made two problematic decisions: It revived the notorious policy from early in the pandemic permitting the Shin Bet security agency to monitor COVID patients using cellphone location data. And it also approved the appointment of retired politician Amir Peretz as chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries, bucking the decision of the Gilor Committee, which vets senior public service appointments.

Let’s start with the easy one. Disqualifying Peretz based on his political ties and lack of appropriate skills prompts a certain measure of uneasiness. But one cannot claim that such a disqualification is clearly unreasonable. Therefore, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who nominated Peretz, should have swallowed their pride and given up on the appointment in favor of a different, unflawed candidate. Their contempt, and that of most of the cabinet which voted in favor of Peretz, projects something bad – Bibi-ism.

“It never occurred to me to boycott Israel. Until Arkansas told me I couldn’t”

The story about the Shin Bet is more infuriating. In their prior iteration, nearly all the members of the current cabinet took the prior government to task for the same thing, excoriating it for the draconian step that it took. The current health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, was among the leaders of those mourning the end of democracy at the time. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Such standards don’t only apply when Yuli Edelstein and Benjamin Netanyahu do this.

How did all this start? When the first confirmed case of the omicron variant was identified in Israel, Bennett wanted to immediately hermetically seal Ben-Gurion airport – to arrivals and departures. On Saturday evening, he carried out consultations, only to find that almost everyone with whom he conferred opposed such a move. On Sunday, someone attending the cabinet meeting raised the issue there. Bennett made an informal assessment and discovered that he was in the clear minority.

Eli AvidarCredit: Amos Biderman

He abandoned the idea completely and raised the alternative of cellphone monitoring instead, to be part of the emergency regulations until Thursday at midnight. Anything beyond that would require Knesset approval.

Four cabinet ministers voted against the Shin Bet provision: Gideon Sa’ar and Yifat Shasha-Biton of the New Hope party, Yesh Atid’s Orna Barbivai and Eli Avidar, who is still formally part of Yisrael Beiteinu. That was their stance a year and a half ago, and it remained their position today. Avidar is the story here.

For purposes of the matter, he is the strategic corporal here, the most junior minister, a minister without any portfolio, but he proved on Sunday, and will prove again down the road, what a pain a minister without portfolio can be.

Avidar can plead innocent. During the Netanyahu government he was among the leaders of those fighting against the involvement of the Shin Bet in the pandemic. He took to the streets to protest. His social milieu is apparently there. It would have been out of the question from his standpoint to do anything but vote against this.

But it’s also clear that he’s running a campaign. The speech in the cabinet, the official statements that he has released, and his sharp rhetoric are an indication that he is sick of doing nothing. In recent days, he has personally targeted Bennett for not quickly passing the so-called Netanyahu law that would bar someone under indictment from forming a government, and now he has also taken him to task on the cellphone tracking issue.

In the prior term, Avidar conducted a world war in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee against involving the Shin Bet. He continued it on Sunday in the cabinet, at somewhat excessive decibel levels. In his fervor, he claimed that Shin Bet director Ronen Bar had “fallen in love with this tool.” Bennett demanded that he speak nicely and “not mud sling.” And the prime minister added: “Who are you anyway?”

Minister Eli Avidar at the Knesset on Sunday.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

It was a mistake that Bennett could pay for dearly. Avidar is his 61st vote in the Knesset. He’s not currently a Knesset member due to the Norwegian law that permits Knesset members who become cabinet members to resign their seats, but he could return to his seat within 48 hours and become the deciding factor on anything that the government would bring to a vote. He had been due to serve now as intelligence minister (which is also essentially a minister without portfolio, but less overtly so). But then Elazar Stern interviewed for the job and the house of cards collapsed. Yair Lapid has taken the issue on himself but so far nothing has budged.

In the past, there was talk about weak links and ticking bombs in the coalition – Ayelet Shaked, Yomtob Kalfon and Benny Gantz. Here’s the new potential weak link: The moment Avidar resigns from the cabinet and returns to the Knesset, he has nothing to lose.

He has no party to return to. He has gotten what he could out of the experience of being in the government. He won’t bring it down. No way. But he will vote according to his principles, as he pleases. For Bennett, it will be less fun.

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