Bennett loyalist quits cabinet in effort to stabilize coalition

The MK was forced out against his will.

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS Minister Matan Kahana address the Knesset plenum last month. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS Minister Matan Kahana address the Knesset plenum last month.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Yamina's Matan Kahana, a close ally of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, resigned from his role as Religious Services Minister on Friday, because Bennett wanted the politician closest to him to help him in the Knesset. 

On Sunday, when his resignation takes effect, Kahana will rejoin the Knesset, which he quit upon taking the ministerial role as part of the Norwegian Law that allows ministers to vacate their Knesset spot and allow the next candidate on the party list to enter. The law allows the minister the return to the Knesset if they quit the cabinet at the expense of the last MK who entered.

MK Yomtob Kalfon, who will leave the Knesset, was repeatedly accused of negotiating with the Likud to follow former coalition chairwoman Idit Silman and defect to the opposition. But Kalfon vigorously denied such charges on social media. 

"I was a victim of cruel character assassination," wrote Kalfon, who pleaded with Bennett on Thursday to allow him to remain an MK.  

Bennett told Kalfon that Kahana must return to the Knesset "for the stability of the coalition."

 RELIGIOUS SERVICES Minister Matan Kahana sits next to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a session in the Knesset plenum earlier this month. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) RELIGIOUS SERVICES Minister Matan Kahana sits next to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a session in the Knesset plenum earlier this month. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The decision was made after Kalfon was absent from the Knesset plenum for several votes on Wednesday and did not answer phone calls. But Kalfon's associates said he had paired off with a Shas MK and had permission to absent himself. 

Coalition chairman Boaz Toporovsky said Kalfon's departure was "mutually beneficial," because the right-wing Kalfon wanted to be loyal to his ideology and often did not feel comfortable voting with the coalition on ideological issues.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked's associates said she would not follow Kahana and resign. Kahana will officially be appointed a deputy minister in Sunday's cabinet meeting to continue running the Religious Services Ministry and pursue reforms in conversion and kosher certification. 

Unlike with a minister, appointing a deputy minister does not require Knesset approval. If Silman agrees to vote for him and provide a majority in the Knesset, he Kahana could return to the cabinet soon.  

The opposition accused Bennett of panicking. The Likud said Bennett was "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic before it sinks. 

"Yamina and the government crumbling has now become full-fledged desertion," said Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin. "Once again, I call on the members of Knesset who were elected with right-wing votes - stop embarrassing yourself and put an end to this disgrace. Leave the government, and we will create a right-wing government that will stop the terror and the nationalist rioting in Lod and in the Negev."

Earlier Friday, some 400 people marched in support of the current government coalition in Bennett's home town, Ra'anana.

Participants walked from Highway 4 to Ra'anana Park. During the march, there were clashes with protesters who are against the current coalition.

"We call on all the leaders of the coalition parties - you have the sacred duty to continue the unity government," said Hagai Friedler, one of the heads of the "80/80 Alliance" - a non-profit organization that calls for partnership between different parts of Israeli society out of mutual respect and on the basis of broad agreements on a wide range of core issues, according to their Facebook page.

"The coalition proves to us every day that we are united, and that despite the disagreements, even deep, we are able to cooperate," he said.

Gadi Zaig contributed to this report.