The decision to dismantle the government came as a complete surprise to its members. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who will now become prime minister, didn’t know in advance that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had decided to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, and neither did the heads of the other parties in the governing coalition.
Israel heads to fifth election, and its democracy is on the line
But despite their lack of knowledge, none of them seemed truly surprised. The cliché “the writing was on the wall” is quite true of this government. In fact, long before coalition whip Idit Silman (of Bennett's Yamina party) quit in April, depriving it of its Knesset majority, the obstacles the coalition faced had brought it to the end of the line. Following are the stops along the route to its dismantlement.
The rifts in the coalition began the very day it was formed. Lawmaker Amichai Chikli (Yamina) had announced the month before that he would oppose a government that included leftist parties and reminded Bennett, his party chairman, of his promise not to make Lapid prime minister. Chikli indeed voted against the government, and Saeed Alkharumi (United Arab List) abstained. Nevertheless, 60 lawmakers voted in favor.
The amendment, which imposes restrictions on West Bank Palestinians married to Israelis in terms of receiving Israeli residency status, became the coalition’s first serious dispute. It was initially enacted in 2003, during the Second Intifada, and was then routinely extended. But it expired because the coalition’s bid to extend it again failed by a vote of 59-59, with two abstentions.
The coalition continued trying to pass the bill, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked eventually reached agreements on it with opposition lawmakers. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who heads the Meretz party, said this “broke the rules and will have consequences for the future.” But the bill was finally passed in March with opposition support, despite opposition from UAL and Meretz, and no consequences ensued.
UAL stopped voting with the coalition to protest tree planting in the Negev by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund. Its boycott continued in February as a protest against the coalition’s efforts to pass the Citizenship Law amendment and the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s opposition to a private member’s bill on unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Thanks to this boycott, the opposition managed to pass nine bills in their first of four required votes, and the coalition was unable to pass its own bills.
The Citizenship Law and the tree planting soon led to another crisis, when lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz) vote against a new conscription law, resulting in its failure to pass. “The coalition has crossed red lines,” she said. In an effort to get her out of the Knesset and stabilize the coalition, Lapid decided to appoint her as Israel’s consul in Shanghai. But the decision hadn’t yet been implemented when the latest crisis over her erupted in May. Nevertheless, the conscription law passed, with her support, when it was brought up for a second vote two weeks after the first.
After having been shaken repeatedly by issues relating to Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians, the coalition began malfunctioning due to a vote boycott by one of its centrist parties. After realizing that he had no majority to increase career officers’ pensions, Benny Gantz, the defense minister and Kahol Lavan chairman, announced that his party’s lawmakers would no longer participate in votes. “The army has been suffering attacks by irresponsible public figures, some of them post-Zionists who are ready to weaken us all for ‘likes,’” he said. Kahol Lavan’s boycott enabled the opposition to pass 12 bills in preliminary votes.
The coalition’s relations with Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Eli Avidar were poor from day one. Avidar, a veteran leader of the anti-Netanyahu protest movement, wanted to become agriculture minister but didn’t get the job. In July 2021 he was appointed a minister without portfolio and was supposed to get the intelligence affairs portfolio if the incumbent, Elazar Stern, had become the Jewish Agency head as planned. But Stern’s appointment fell through, so Avidar didn’t get that ministry, either. He then resigned from the cabinet and resumed serving as an ordinary lawmaker.
After his resignation, Avidar attacked the government from the cabinet for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and for not passing legislation that would make it difficult for Benjamin Netanyahu to become prime minister again. He also attacked Bennett: “This man grew up on Netanyahu’s knees and is trying to imitate him in every move. He has no commitment at all to implement the [prime ministerial] rotation.” Avidar promised not to vote against the government or to bring it down, and he kept that promise, but he certainly added to the already-stormy political situation.
The most important damage to the coalition’s day-to-day functioning occurred when its own coalition whip, lawmaker Idit Silman, abandoned ship. This meant the number of coalition lawmakers dropped to only 60, and the government lost its majority in the Knesset. Silman displayed dissatisfaction a few days before she left, when she publicly attacked Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz over his instructions to implement the High Court of Justice ruling allowing hametz into hospitals during the Passover holiday. (Hametz, forbidden on Passover for observant Jews, encompasses food with leavening agents.)
A few days later, Silman informed Bennett in a letter of her decision to stop being a member of the governing coalition: “I can no longer bear damage to values and standards that are the essence and right. The time has come to establish a nationalist, Jewish and Zionist government.” Silman agreed with Netanyahu, it seems in principle, that she would be guaranteed a place on the Likud Knesset slate for the next Knesset and that she would be appointed health minister.
Silman’s remains out of the coalition. She participated in some of the meetings of Yamina lawmakers, and her party has not declared her a “defector.”
Another security issue that damaged the stability of the political situation were the tensions and confrontations on the Temple Mount, which led UAL to freeze its membership in the coalition in coordination with Bennett and Lapid. The freeze took place during the Knesset recess, and on May 11 Mansour Abbas announced that his party would give the government one more chance. The UAL decided to return and vote with the coalition in spite of the death of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed during an IDF operation in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. The UAL condemned the death and called for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry.
Rinawie Zoabi once again kept the coalition busy when she announced she was leaving in a letter she sent to the heads of the coalition parties in which she wrote that the confrontations on the Temple Mount and during Abu Akleh’s funeral “were too hard to bear.” In doing so, the number of coalition MKs fell to only 59 and the opposition seemingly achieved a majority.
But Rinawie Zoabi reversed her decision after three days. She met with Lapid under the pressure of Arab mayors and reached an understanding with him. Nonetheless, the crisis in the relationship between Rinawie Zoabi and the coalition returned quickly, when she announced she would not support extending the West Bank emergency regulations.
The government managed to survive one of the biggest challenges it has faced during the present term – the law providing scholarships to veterans, which paid for partial scholarships for combat soldiers studying for a college degree. But a major struggle between the coalition and opposition preceded the vote, and Rinawie Zoabi and the lawmakers of UAL opposed it, and in the end they didn’t participate in the vote at all. Silman also abstained from the vote, along with all opposition lawmakers, except for those in the Joint List.
Another player who didn’t threaten the existence of the government, but who contributed to the feeling of a lack of political stability, was the chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, lawmaker Michael Biton (Kahol Lavan). Biton announced he would not vote with the government, except in the case of a no-confidence motion, and said that it was possible that in the future he might even vote against coalition bills. He made it clear that he was doing this with the knowledge of the leader of his party, Benny Gantz.
The reason for Biton’s boycott was a dispute with Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli over reforms for public transportation, which Biton said harmed groups in need. Biton also opposed the changes planned by the Agriculture Ministry, including a demand to improve the conditions for chickens in henhouses and lowering import duties on fruits and vegetables. Biton went back to voting with the government after a week. He hoped to solve the crisis within two weeks, but he did not succeed and renewed his boycott of voting with the government. “I won’t be the one to bring down the government,” he said last week, “but if the poor can wait then other laws can wait too.”
Some politicians said that Housing Minister Zeev Elkin of New Hope was conducting negotiations with a close associate of Netanyahu, Yaacov Atrakchi, to form an alternative government in the present Knesset without calling an election, in the event the present government fell. Likud and New Hope denied the reports, and sources in New Hope told Haaretz that he was convinced that “Bibi [Netanyahu] leaked as negotiations were being conducted and was furious. He did not intend to conduct any negotiations, certainly not after that.”
One of the coalition’s biggest failures occurred during the vote on extending the West Bank emergency regulations. Fifty-eight lawmakers opposed the bill and 52 voted in favor, in what became the most important catalyst for the collapse of the government. The initial threat came on the part of Gideon Sa’ar, who declared the government had no right to exist if the regulations were not passed. In the end, Sa’ar didn’t carry out his threat, and lawmaker Nir Orbach (Yamina) took his place. After lawmaker Mazen Ghanayim (United Arab List) voted against, Orbach announced: “You don’t want to be partners. The experiment with you has failed.” Rinawie Zoabi also voted against the extension of the regulations and said that, during her meeting with Lapid after she left the coalition, she presented him with the condition that she would receive the freedom to vote as she wished “on laws that are not fair to the Arab community or the Palestinian people.”
After the vote, coalition sources told Haaretz that they could not continue to operate for the long term in a situation where every lawmaker can vote down a law. Since then, the coalition has pressured Ghanayim and Zoabi to resign, but with no success.
After losing the vote on the West Bank regulations, the coalition tried to reappoint lawmaker Matan Kahana (Yamina) as religious services minister. The vote was turned into a confidence motion in the government, but it did not have a majority and failed to pass. Silman also voted against the government for the first time since she left the coalition.
The vote on raising the minimum wage promoted by the opposition has revealed how wide the chasm is among the ranks of the coalition. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation opposed advancing the bill, and the coalition instructed lawmakers to oppose it. But UAL supported it, as did Rinawie Zoabi. Meretz and Labor lawmakers absented themselves from the Knesset plenum. Yesh Atid and New Hope opposed granting freedom for lawmakers to vote as they wished, and said that Labor and Meretz lawmakers leaving the Knesset before the vote was a violation of coalition discipline.
Orbach was wobbling for a long time over his support for the government. He saw the difficulty in approving the Citizenship Law and the emergency regulations for the West Bank, Silman leaving and the pressure put on him and his family, and he wondered what he should do. Bennett met with Orbach a number of times in an attempt to convince him to remain in the coalition, and representatives of Likud also met with him and proposed that he join them. In the end, Orbach decided to make his support for the government conditional on the approval of the West Bank emergency regulations. Orbach said clearly that he didn’t support dissolving the Knesset, but added: “In the situation of things as they are today, I am not part of the coalition. Extremist and anti-Zionist individuals such as Knesset members Ghanayim and Zoabi have taken the coalition in problematic directions, and have used it the entire way as their hostage.”
After that, Bennett said in the Knesset that “the choice today is between chaos and stability. We need to say with honesty that the coalition also has members who still haven't internalized the importance of the hour, have fallen in love with protests and votes and who do not understand the extent of events.” Bennett told those same Knesset members who were still refusing to cooperate with the coalition that “we have a week or two to settle it.”
The prime minister and alternate prime minister despaired of the possibility of stabilizing the coalition government, and decided to bring the bill to dissolve the Knesset for a vote next week. The two agreed that Lapid would serve as the caretaker prime minister and that Bennett would become the alternate prime minister. Sources close to Bennett said he decided to choose a new election because of the failure to extend the emergency regulations for the West Bank. Bennett said, “From the moment that it harms the country, I have no way to continue with it,” said one source. If the Knesset does dissolve itself by the end of June, when the regulations are set to expire, then they will be extended automatically.
The governing coalition has approved its first step to dissolve the Knesset, in an attempt to pass the law within a week. The leaders of the coalition parties want to complete the process as soon as possible in order to prevent the opposition from forming an alternative government in the present Knesset.