Analysis |

Netanyahu Hits the Coalition Where It Hurts

Silman's defection to the opposition has not only shattered the coalition's structure but its legitimacy, too.

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Special debate at the Knesset on Wednesday
Special debate at the Knesset on WednesdayCredit: Emil Salman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

A few days ago, after the dramatic outburst from Idit Silman directed at Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz in the wake of his statement that visitors should be permitted to bring hametz into hospitals on Passover, a colleague wrote to me: “What does Silman want?”

“To scrounge for loose change among the right-wing electorate,” I replied. I couldn't think of any other explanation for her slamming into Horowitz at full speed over a tweet that essentially reiterated a High Court ruling from over a year ago. I thought Silman had her sights set on the twilight period before the scheduled handover from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Like many others, I was not quick or sharp enough to decipher the real meaning of the speed at which Silman plowed forward (or that of her husband; “behind every successful woman stands a meddling man,” one top minister said the other day). Silman does not even try to be convincing in her resignation letter, which contains only generalities such as “some of our partners, who hold key positions in the coalition, apparently see things differently and are not prepared for any compromise on matters that are at the core of the worldview of the public that elected us and brought us to the Knesset.”

“What is she talking about? What non-Jewish or non-rightist issues did the government advance? And if there were any such things – where was she when it mattered?” asked another stunned coalition member.

Ever since the coalition was formed, all eyes were fixed on Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, lawmaker Nir Orbach and Defense Minister Benny Gantz as potential defectors to the camp of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

With Shaked, the chronic bellyaching and trolling from within were soon revealed to be permanent – not a signal of this being a way station to somewhere else. To her credit, it must be said that even though relations with her former political partner went south, a scenario in which she stabbed Bennett in the back verged on – and still verges on – unlikely.

Nir Orbach, the next suspect, has been under scrutiny, but he enjoys a much better reputation than Silman. “It’s a lot harder for him ideologically than it is for Silman, but he’s a mensch. He wouldn’t do something like this like a thief in the night,” says another minister.

Incidentally, there are some in the coalition who say – among general complaints about Bennett and his gang – that had Orbach been the coalition whip, things would have been different. (For now, they’ll definitely be content as long as the thoughtful mensch doesn’t follow in her footsteps.)

Gantz, who still believes that he had and has a real chance of becoming prime minister, may make sour faces and huff and puff – but his loathing for Netanyahu, who ruined his life, acts as something akin to an insurance policy for his partners, with his periodic flirtations with Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox usually being interpreted as an attempt to show his partners that he is not dependent upon them to boost his power.

But no one thought Silman would be the one to break away.

Netanyahu’s accomplishment was spectacularly brutal. He didn’t seduce just any lawmaker. He brought over to his ranks the “change government’s” coalition whip. The whip is the beating heart of the coalition. One needn’t look too far to recall coalition whips who forged their own political paths through the position and the spokesperson-like service they provided for the prime minister who appointed them.

Two good examples were key figures in Netanyahu’s ouster: Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. Who ever heard of MK David Bitan before he gave out candies during important votes and became the most powerful person in the 20th Knesset?

Silman’s action is a rocket hitting a sore spot, perhaps the most painful in the coalition’s soft underbelly. The damage it does is not merely practical, (a coalition of 60 is a known nightmare; at the height of his strength in 2016, Netanyahu chose to bring his great nemesis Avigdor Lieberman into the government rather than rely on 61 votes) but also and primarily symbolic. If the coalition whip, a member of the prime minister’s party, decides to bolt in the middle of the night, what legitimacy does this government have?

Bennett is a young prime minister with a heap of problems on his plate. He has dealt with some of these challenges heroically. But the Silman fiasco, which he never saw coming, is part and parcel of the general political failure that is his Knesset caucus.

Bennett assembled a small, disparate group he has not been able to control. Or even to trust. This is an issue, a severe one. Not just for Bennett, but for his coalition partners who must come to his rescue – especially Lapid, if he wants to sit on the prime minister’s throne.

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