Prime Minister Naftali Bennett worked to shore up his shaky coalition after Yamina MK Nir Orbach warned he would quit the government unless his three-pronged ultimatum was met, making settlements a central issue in the ongoing crisis.
The demands were made in coordination with his Yamina colleagues Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Minister Abir Kara, a party source said. Shaked and Kara, like Orbach and Yamina MK Idit Silman – who resigned from the coalition on Wednesday – have faced massive pressure from the Right to leave the ideologically diverse coalition.
Orbach demanded the restoration of daycare subsidies for children of yeshiva students and has asked that the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria be convened to authorize plans for new settler homes, something that has not happened for the last six months.
He also demanded that the government allow for West Bank outposts to be hooked up to the electricity grid.
But within hours of his ultimatum, it appeared as if his demands had opened the door for Bennett’s government to recoup its losses.
The first demand should have created an immediate conflict with Bennett’s coalition partner, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who had canceled the subsidies.
Liberman met with Orbach and agreed to delay any action until 2024. “Now is not the time for a new election,” he said in a publicized address, as he detailed the successes of the government.
Orbach’s second and third demands create tension with Bennett’s left-wing coalition members and with the international community, including the United States, which wants Israel to freeze settlement activity.
Yamina sources have pointed to Defense Minister Benny Gantz as the problem, saying he has to give the order to connect electricity to the “young settlements,” as their advocates call them.
Gantz was party to an agreement that allowed a law to pass giving electricity to illegally constructed homes within Israel’s sovereign border. But he has not kept up his end of the bargain to do the same for Israelis over the Green Line.
Yamina sources also lamented that the defense minister has not convened the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria, which is under his jurisdiction, and has not been tackling the issue of illegal Palestinian construction in Area C, something the New Hope Party in the coalition has also opposed.
In closed-door meetings throughout his premiership, Bennett took criticism on the settlement issue seriously, and even called Gantz in front of the Yamina faction to take him to task for ordering the demolition of settlement property belonging to Jeremy Gimpel, a candidate on Bennett’s list in 2013. Although that demolition was canceled, Yamina felt that Gantz has not kept his word on other issues relating to settlements.
Asked if Bennett, as prime minister, does not ultimately carry the responsibility, one Yamina source said: “Yes, but he shouldn’t have to babysit Gantz all day.”
The critics pointed to Gantz planning a trip to India that was to take place days before Bennett was supposed to go to Delhi without consulting him, as an example of the Blue and White leader working to undermine the prime minister.
Gantz’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Yamina sources also pointed fingers at Shimrit Meir, Bennett’s diplomatic adviser who has taken on a much larger role than her title would imply. Tensions between Bennett’s longtime political advisers, who hold senior positions in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Meir, a relative newcomer, have been ongoing for months.
Meir, who was in Washington this week meeting with UN officials about the Iran talks, tried to call Yamina lawmakers after Silman’s resignation, but they did not answer, party sources said.
ORBACH’S ULTIMATUM follows Silman’s decision on Wednesday to resign from the coalition, a move that took it from the minimal majority of 61 Knesset seats in the 120-member parliament to 60 seats.
Yamina decided on Thursday to declare MK Amichai Chikli, who declined to join the coalition when it was first formed, a defector, in what could be viewed as a warning shot to the rest of the faction.
“MK Chikli chose to divorce himself from the faction and act in complete opposition to its positions, with active and deliberate actions to thwart the faction, the coalition and the Israeli government,” Yamina said.
As a defector, Chikli will not be able to join any other faction in the current Knesset term nor run in the next election with any list in the current Knesset, unless he resigns from the legislature.
Silman views Gantz as the greatest obstacle to right-wing policies, according to a source in Yamina who spoke with Silman after her resignation. She avoided mentioning Gantz or settlements in her resignation letter because she was working with Likud, which hopes to form a coalition with Gantz’s Blue and White Party, the source said. Silman’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request to confirm the report.
If Orbach were to resign as well, he would leave Bennett with a minority government of 59. Orbach, Shaked and Kara have agreed to coordinate any further political moves with each other.
Bennett’s coalition can technically remain intact without a majority, but it leaves him susceptible to legislation to send the country to an election, or a no-confidence motion that would bring down the government and install a replacement if more coalition MKs would support an alternative candidate.
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, a longtime Bennett ally, posted an open letter to other coalition members on Facebook.
“We all knew this government could not fulfill all of our wishes and our ideologies,” he said of the coalition made up of eight diverse parties. “From the moment we established the government, we knew its chance to survive did not only depend on coalition agreements, but no less on the goodwill of its members not to poke one another in the eye for small gains with its party base.
“Friends, when we started this journey, we all knew that this government would continue to build in Judea and Samaria, not more than the previous governments, but not less. We agreed to build a yeshiva in Evyatar. Why is it delayed? We agreed that for different reasons, we will allow normal electricity to young settlements. Even very left-wing MKs thought it was appropriate. So why did another winter pass in which Israeli citizens froze from the cold?
“More and more things that are important to us that were agreed upon aren’t happening. More and more pokes in our eyes at the same time as an incitement campaign that our MKs experienced. I believe that even now we can repair and continue to keep this government existing, together, for the State of Israel.”
MKs from the left-wing coalition party Meretz spoke out in response to Orbach’s ultimatum.
Mossi Raz said he could agree to cede to the first two demands, but not the one about the outposts.
“Connecting criminal outposts to electricity is a surrender to violence,” he said.
Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan urged Orbach to rescind his ultimatum.
“What is important here?” he asked. “Connecting the outposts of lawbreakers to electricity, or the continued existence of a national rescue government? A responsible public servant must be able to set clear priorities and withstand pressure. Nir, do not slip into the realm of national populism.”
Polls conducted by three Israeli television stations on Wednesday night showed that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu remained the most popular prime ministerial candidate, and that his Likud Party would receive anywhere from 35-38 mandates in a new election. But the polls also showed that he was unlikely to be able to form a government, a problem that has plagued him for more than three years and four elections.
The Right, however, has pushed to open the door to either bring down the current government or replace it, unless it takes steps to strengthen the settlement movement and shore up the country’s Jewish and religious identity.
Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan called on Orbach to resign from the coalition rather than give an ultimatum on issues that the government would eventually agree to anyway.
“This government needs to be replaced by a full right-wing government,” he said. “The whole national camp understands that.”