Analysis |

The Israeli Government Had a Good Year. One Lawmaker Plots a Move That Could Bring It Down

While the cabinet is celebrating its first birthday and seeking a way back to health, Netanyahu is flagging his dark plans for appointing Supreme Court justices. Meanwhile, the coalition is angry with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar 

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

On May 6, on the eve of the start of the Knesset’s summer session, I reported on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s assessment that the governing coalition’s life expectancy was another month, give or take. And Bennett probably didn’t expect the resignation from the coalition by Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, who subsequently “returned,” but not really.

And he didn’t expect this week’s events that have suppressed the coalition’s shaky immune system even more.

Israel's political crisis is far from over – and getting worse

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So now the month has gone by. The “plus” is fluid. Even if the coalition manages to get through the seven weeks until the summer recess, Bennett deserves some credit: His gut feeling was impressive.

On Monday the coalition will mark a year since it was sworn in. Bennett and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid can look back not in anger but with satisfaction. The historic initiative they have led, along with six fellow party heads, has had success despite the impossible conditions.

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset on Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

They’ve rescued a country on the brink of an abyss, ousted a corrupt and dangerous prime minister, and stabilized the economic and political situations, including the government’s relationship with the judiciary. They’ve also rehabilitated Israel’s ties with the United States and Europe.

All the government’s flaws (and there are no perfect governments) pale compared to its achievements, especially considering what this cabinet’s existence has prevented.

The government’s top people, including the leaders of the two right-wing parties in it, have suffered a campaign of slander and incitement like we’ve never known, buoyed by huge sums of money.

The thought that the leaders of this despicable campaign might soon enter the ministries, take over the national budget, legal system and law-enforcement agencies should freeze the blood of anyone who holds dear the notion of a properly run country and true Zionism. That is, true Zionism, not the warped and racist version of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir on the far right.

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir in the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

A random example of what we now face: On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will consider a bill by Likud lawmakers May Golan and David Amsalem to transfer the procedure for appointing Supreme Court justices to the cabinet and Knesset from the Judicial Appointments Committee; the ruling coalition will choose the justices.

It will send their names to a parliamentary committee that will conduct hearings on the candidates; those who make it through will come up for approval by the Knesset. A total crude politicization. Bullying, like the proposers.

Representatives from all corners of Netanyahu’s dream coalition have endorsed this bill, including Ben-Gvir, Avi Maoz of the homophobic Noam faction, Yitzhak Pindrus of United Torah Judaism and a few guys from Shas.

The bill will be thrown into the trash, as it deserves. But on Wednesday, Golan and Amsalem will take the Knesset podium and try to justify it. No doubt they’ll add plenty of salty language.

Of course, the bill wouldn’t have been submitted without the approval of Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the shadow justice minister. Nor is the timing random: When an early election is very much in the air, the candidate for prime minister is signaling his intentions to the judges and Supreme Court candidates.

Regulations and complications

The notable feature of this week’s coalition crisis is that it was entirely self-inflicted. The Judea and Samaria Regulations, as these emergency measures have been renewed every five years since 1967. They’re important from a legal perspective: Their expiration is like the sun not rising in the morning.

It’s a problem the authorities never dreamed they’d have to worry about. Until about a week ago, 99 percent of Israelis weren’t aware of these regulations and their great importance. Unfortunately for the Bennett-Lapid government, the five years expire at the end of the month.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar wanted to bring the renewal up for its first of three votes at the end of the spring recess about a month ago. He postponed this four times, at Bennett and Lapid’s request, because the government lacked a majority. This week he decided not to wait any longer and the government lost the vote, exposing the coalition’s widening rifts.

Sa’ar’s partners were less enthusiastic about his belligerent stance in media interviews toward the Arab lawmakers who were considering whether to vote in favor. They said he had insidious motives.

Had Gideon tried, maybe he could have gotten the regulations passed in the more obscure hours of the Knesset’s work, one of the party heads told me. At worst, the coalition would have blamed Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir and tried again.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar on Thursday.Credit: David Bachar

“On the contrary,” sources quoted the justice minister as saying. As Sa'ar put it, if he hadn’t uttered a word, would Mazen Ghanayim of the United Arab List and Rinawie Zoabi of Meretz have voted in favor? In what movie does that happen?

As Sa’ar added, for a whole month he postponed the vote, under the radar, because he was told there wasn’t a majority. If the lawmakers in the coalition had gotten their act together and conducted a campaign like they did for the scholarships for newly discharged soldiers, maybe the result would have been different.

But they preferred to stand off to the side. The problem isn’t that he made warnings, Sa’ar said. The problem is that there’s no coalition discipline.

Monday night into Tuesday, after the disgrace of the losing vote in the Knesset, the coalition decided to bring up the re-appointment of Yamina’s Matan Kahana as religious services minister. As expected, this failed too, an effort that reflected an apparent attack of masochism.

Two days later, along came the minimum wage bill proposed by Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadi of the opposition, to which was attached a similar bill by Labor’s Naama Lazimi from the coalition. Under ordinary circumstances, the coalition would have voted nay without batting an eye – a measure like this, which costs many millions of shekels, has to be a government initiative, usually part of an agreement with the Histadrut labor federation. But someone at the Finance Ministry felt pressured.

A few hours before the debate, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman showed up at the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, and from there came a statement that an outline for raising the minimum wage had been agreed on by the minister and the committee’s chairwoman, Efrat Rayten. Lawmakers like Lazimi and Meretz whip Michal Rozin went nuts: Not only are they being required to vote against a bill dear to their hearts, but the credit is going to Rayten.

After three hours of riling one another up, it was decided to walk out of the chamber and let the bill pass on the first reading with the votes of the opposition, which celebrated a third victory in less than 48 hours.

Everyone in the Knesset realizes that the bill isn’t going to move forward in the current form. It will get stuck in committee and lapse after the next election. But the embarrassment was caused, another totally unnecessary blow.

Lapid then sat down with a few people in a far corner of the Knesset cafeteria. “The only advantage in the current mess,” said Lapid, an indefatigable optimist, “is that we created it and can also resolve it. We’ll let everybody calm down and next week we’ll convene all the party heads and ask them: Do you want to go back to coalition discipline or will everybody keep running wild?”

Behind these words is a two-headed move to trigger the resignations of the two recalcitrant lawmakers, Ghanayim and Rinawie Zoabi. Lapid and Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz are dealing with Zoabi. United Arab List chief Mansour Abbas is assigned to his party mate Ghanayim.

Rinawie Zoabi, meanwhile, is getting a lot of requests from Arab civil society. Plenty of people are ready to offer her a job if she’d just leave that confounded Knesset. For his part, Ghanayim, someone entirely invested in the race for Sakhnin mayor, needs a solution for the next year and a half until the local elections.

MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi in the Knesset on Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

If these two resign from the Knesset and their replacements behave, the coalition will return to 60 lawmakers. At least the bill to dissolve the Knesset won’t pass; maybe it will also be possible to approve the emergency regulations.

Sa’ar will wait for the situation to become clear before he brings the regulations up for a vote again. If they’re not extended, the only way to prevent the ensuing chaos will be to dissolve the Knesset before the month ends.

This Israeli apartheid law will automatically be extended for about seven months. Likud plans to pull this card out of its hat and wave it in the tortured face of vacillating Yamina legislator Nir Orbach, the Hamlet of our times.

Faith no more

Orbach really is a tragic figure. Only a member of the religious Zionist community who recites the saying “Don’t shame your friend in public” and “Your friend’s honor is as your own” can be so cruel to one of his or her own, making the other person’s life a misery.

The man is talking with Likud. This is known. Two weeks ago I reported that Levin has promised to reserve a spot for Orbach on the Likud slate after he defects from Bennett’s Yamina. If so, what are the “talks” about? Why the delay?

For one thing, Orbach, like any sentient being, doesn’t believe a word Netanyahu says. He’s looking for a method in writing to force the Likud chief to keep his promise, but no way. Only a public commitment from Bibi could tie him to his dubious word.

Nir Orbach and Idit Silman at the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A second reason: On Monday night between 2 and 4 A.M., Orbach sat in the Prime Minister’s Office. He wasn’t alone. A few other religious Zionist men were there. He explained to Bennett that from his perspective the current government has done its bit and is on the way out.

He also tried to persuade the prime minister to make a move: Join an alternative government with Netanyahu (!) or force the United Arab List to resign from the coalition so Lapid won’t become caretaker prime minister during the election campaign. Then break sharply to the right to be the Naftali of the Habayit Hayehudi party like in the good old days.

Bennett asked Orbach to wait; there’s time. They’re simpatico on the Lapid issue. The question is how far Bennett will agree to go.

A third reason: Orbach’s political axis with Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked and Abir Kara. In a moment of weakness, they promised one another not to give in to their political temptations.

But Orbach is worried. Twice, in his view, they pulled the rug out from under him – first when Amichai Chikli left the party, then when Idit Silman left the coalition. Every moment that Orbach hesitates, somebody might get in ahead of him and there will be no need for him: The 61st vote in the Knesset will have been obtained.

A source in Yamina says the manifesto Bennett published a week ago has had an effect on Orbach. According to the source, the document’s language convinced Orbach that Naftali isn’t the Naftali who entered politics around a decade ago.

The manifesto spoke to the center of the political map, the jargon was from the Balfour Street demonstrations when Netanyahu was prime minister; talking about a “poison machine” and the like. Orbach realized he has to look after himself. He won’t be part of his old friend’s new incarnation.

And I almost forgot: When the coalition was formed, Orbach was going to be settlement affairs minister. The appointment was delayed because of an agreement between Bennett and Hagit Moshe, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, once the home of Orbach as well.

The agreement still exists, theoretically, but Bennett could easily have appointed Orbach minister and given him a budget and real power to invest in the settlements – and maybe even let him into the security cabinet as an observer. The whole package.

Any other prime minister would have done this to avoid growing an ulcer. Bennett was negligent and soon might pay the price.

Mired in Meretz

The coronavirus struck Horowitz this week; the health minister caught it pretty badly; “not a slight flu,” as he put it. His bout with COVID was the least of his troubles. The renewed rise in the infection rate and the Rinawie Zoabi saga pursued him to his sickbed.

This week Bennett said to someone, half-jokingly, that if he has to address the Iran issue and the political crisis at the same time, he’ll tackle the latter first so that people will be left to attend to the former.

It’s the same with Horowitz in his sector: He, Arab municipal council heads, Arab business leaders, activists and opinion leaders have invested tremendous energy in the mission of removing Rinawie Zoabi from the caucus.

There’s a problem in Israeli law, Horowitz said. The Knesset seat belongs to the legislator, not the party, as it should be.

How ironic. Horowitz isn’t the kind of politician who
hands out jobs. He has made only one appointment and look what happened. Now he’s trying to straighten things out.

It’s all clear to him: As long as Rinawie Zoabi is in the Knesset, the future of the first governing coalition in two decades to contain the left-wing Meretz party is very bleak. The same can be said for Meretz itself; in most opinion polls, the party doesn’t even make it into the Knesset.

During the past year, Horowitz’s ministry has transferred considerable funds to Arab cities, plus 200 million shekels ($59 million) to the hospital in Nazareth, credit for which Abbas, the gentleman, has allowed to go to Rinawie Zoabi. And he too got spat on.

Rinawie Zoabi’s colleagues in Meretz tried to figure out what she’s aiming at. She told Abbas: I want to finish the summer session (less than two months away) and leave with my head high. She told Abbas: I want to finish the term (three and a half years away) and leave with my head high.

Her party colleague Esawi Freige sat with her for hours and got the impression that everything will be fine. She’s even complaining about Lapid; she groused: “He and Ayelet Shaked have made a pact with [far-rightist] Simcha Rothman to pass the Citizenship Law,” which prevents family unification between Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza who marry Israeli citizens.

Nobody in the cabinet is dealing with her and her
caprices more than Lapid; his office is busy day and night clearing the pipeline for five-year-plan funds for the Arab community. Rinawie Zoabi knows this.

Three people who speak with her from time to time have told me in despair: There’s no one to talk to. This is no longer a political event. It’s irrational. It’s incomprehensible. Doesn’t she realize what awaits us if the government falls? What is this alleged “public” in whose name she’s voting with Likud against us?

At a Meretz caucus meeting Monday, her colleagues pleaded with her to vote for the emergency regulations. Gaby Lasky, a veteran human rights activist, was on the verge of tears. She pleaded to Rinawie Zoabi: All my life I’ve been dealing with matters of the occupied territories, and I’m supporting the regulations because the alternative is terrible. Rinawie Zoabi sat there stone-faced.

She’s killing us, Meretz people are lamenting. Every day that she’s part of us, we're getting slugged by our voters. Deal with her first, they’re telling us. The emergency regulations don’t interest our voters, only that we remain in the government.

We’re appealing to her and she’s not even looking us in the eye. She’s enjoying the attention. Reporters are calling her, news broadcasts are opening with her, she’s the top headline, and we’re are getting punished because of her.

A few weeks ago, during the recess, Meretz’s legislators and managers were shown a poll of 850 people who normally vote for the center or left: Meretz, Labor, Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan. Meretz voters were asked whether they thought the party was relinquishing its principles. Forty percent said yes.

Should the party quit the government because of that? More than 90 percent said no, absolutely not. This was the view again and again, also regarding social, diplomatic and legal issues.

Meretz voters know that the occupation won’t end with the lapsing of the emergency regulations, which will be renewed at some point. There has to be an agreement with the Palestinians.

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