The coalition’s mini-crisis amid the Russian-Ukrainian crisis

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: The way the prime minister and defense minister got along once they shifted gears to security and diplomacy was proof that this dispute wouldn't end the government.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett shakes hands with Defense Minister Benny Gantz last month in the Knesset. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett shakes hands with Defense Minister Benny Gantz last month in the Knesset.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz left a meeting of his Blue and White Knesset faction on Monday and walked determinedly two doors down to the office of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, raising speculation that a solution could soon finally be found to end the dispute over the faction’s stalled legislation.

But then Gantz’s trusted chief of staff, Maayan Israeli, who handles political issues for him, left the room and announced that the meeting was not about the political battle in the Knesset but about the much more serious war that was about to start in Ukraine. Israeli ascended to the Knesset cafeteria to meet rebellious Yamina MK Abir Kara, while Gantz and Bennett went straight to work on Ukraine.

The political reporters in the hallway between the two offices left disappointed that the international arena had once again trumped resolving internal squabbles with much less serious ramifications. But the way the prime minister and defense minister got along so well once they shifted gears to security and diplomacy was proof that this would not be the political dispute that brings this government down.

“When they talk about Ukraine, suddenly they agree on everything and act completely professionally,” a source close to the prime minister said of Bennett and Gantz.

IF THEY could do the same when it comes to politics, their government would be able to accomplish much more. For three weeks, the Knesset has been nearly paralyzed, as one crisis has followed another.

  Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen addressing a townhall in Munich, Germany, on February 20, 2022. (credit: Munich Security Conference) Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen addressing a townhall in Munich, Germany, on February 20, 2022. (credit: Munich Security Conference)

Gantz has been frustrated for months that his party’s bills are not moving forward. Most of them are uncontroversial, like shifting the Innovation Authority to the Science and Technology Ministry, which is led by Blue and White minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen. Those in the coalition who wanted to make Gantz look bad highlighted instead a bill that would significantly raise pensions for senior IDF officers.

Aides to Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid collaborated on distributing a fiercely worded statement Lapid’s office wrote mocking Gantz for caring more about pensions for his cronies than security. The statement led to speculation that Bennett and Lapid were conspiring to bring the tallest member of the cabinet down to size, and Gantz stepped right into their trap by boycotting Knesset votes over the pension bill.

Sources close to Bennett denied on Thursday that his targeting of the defense minister was planned well in advance.

“We didn’t want to make a balagan [mess],” an aide to Bennett said. “But when Gantz announced the boycott, we had to do something. We only sent out the message when it was clear that he would not agree to compromises. We wouldn’t have released it otherwise. We don’t want to fight for the sake of fighting, but boycotts are unacceptable, because they set a precedent and would lead to more boycotts from other parties.”

A meeting of Bennett with party heads in Tel Aviv Thursday night, where an effort was going to be made to solve the dispute, was postponed to Sunday, due to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Bennett’s aides admitted that it was frustrating for the prime minister to deal with political minutiae during a war, but they said he understood the importance of taking care of the problem before the Knesset reconvenes on Monday.

“He doesn’t want this to snowball,” a Bennett aide said. “He will fix it. He knows it’s critical for him to get involved, and he will resolve it.”

Gantz’s associates suggested that the escalation in the political battle was just as unnecessary and avoidable as the dispute in Ukraine. They said that had Bennett and Lapid met Gantz halfway on the uncontroversial issues Blue and White is advancing, he would not have been able to come out so hard on pensions.

They said Gantz had no choice but to burn bridges, after bringing up his party’s issues a dozen times with no progress. Even mild-mannered Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper told Gantz the time had come to go for the jugular.

“Benny sacrificed his own image to return discipline to the coalition and ensure that its decisions will be enforced and implemented,” a source close to Gantz said. “This will help everyone in the long run. When decisions are made, everyone must fall into line.”

But Gantz’s aides also sounded apologetic for the timing of the fight. They stressed that the defense minister and Blue and White leader spends 95% of his time on security and just 5% on petty politics.

There was no time to wait to start the fight, because there are only two weeks left before the Knesset’s two-month spring recess, which begins on March 13. Who knows what state the government will be in when the MKs get back to work? It’s better to be safe and try to pass key bills now.

After three weeks when the coalition passed virtually nothing, now dozens of bills will have to be steamrolled through ahead of the deadline. At a dizzying pace, the MKs have gone from all-night marathon sessions to going home for the weekend at noon on Wednesday, and the marathon sessions are about to return.

“The dispute comes from not having patience before the end of the winter term,” a coalition official said. “They all want to get their stuff done, so they fight among themselves to get their stuff in. For those who don’t know how long the government will last, it’s more urgent. For the pessimistic, this is the time to get things done.”

Meetings of Knesset committees will likely be canceled to make time for the marathon sessions in the plenum. The coalition will try to pass the controversial citizenship bill and term limits for prime ministers into law. The pension and conversion bills will have to be passed in their first readings, as will legislation to change the voting body for elections for the Chief Rabbinate before that vote is held later this year.

“It’s all a juggling act of what we’re going to give up and what we’re going to push through,” another coalition official said. “When we decide we have a coalition again, we’ll be working around the clock.”

That is why the coalition MKs who got out early on Wednesday due to their forfeiting votes in the plenum left the Knesset with such excitement. They heard Gantz’s decision at his faction meeting and took advantage of the political stalemate to go home to spend time with their families, which they will not get to see much until the recess, just before the Purim holiday.

Only when the political battles are done – and perhaps the serious war in Ukraine as well – can the Knesset members really be able to enjoy a holiday that celebrates true farce.