Idit Silman proves that ideology trumps goodwill

Idit Silman's resignation from the coalition throws Israel back into a state of political instability.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks with MK Idit Silman in the Knesset in January. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks with MK Idit Silman in the Knesset in January.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Get ready to cover your ears, because days of great political cacophony are up ahead.

Yamina MK and coalition whip Idit Silman’s bombshell announcement Wednesday that she was leaving the coalition hurtled Israel into all-too-familiar territory: political instability. No one could say with certainty how it would happen, or when it will happen, but most agree that it is just a matter of time before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s unique government is brought down.

A government without a Knesset majority cannot stand. Technically, it can stand. Technically, a government can continue on with a deadlocked 60-60 Knesset, but practically it will find it impossible to get anything done and will eventually expire.

What will be the final straw that formally brings the government down? How will a new government be formed – by going to new elections or through a constructive vote of no-confidence whereby at least 61 Knesset members agree on a new prime minister? None of that is clear.

What is clear, however, is that the period of relative political quiet – a 10-month period marked by a retreat from the endless “yes Bibi, no Bibi’’ debates and by limited political drama – is now behind us.

 Idit Silman, head of the Health Committee leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Idit Silman, head of the Health Committee leads a Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on November 16, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Stunning is the rapidity with which the country’s national conversation turned suddenly on Wednesday from the threat of terrorism to the possibility of new elections. Stunning was how, within just a matter of hours, the war in Ukraine was relegated to the second half of the nightly news. Stunning as well was the speed with which pollsters questions’ shifted from whether people felt secure on the streets to whom they would vote for were elections held today.

Silman’s announcement put into motion a process that will bring about the dissolution of the current government. What Bennett once termed a great “experiment” has failed.

“This is an experiment –not only at the national level, but at the international level – how reasonable people with goodwill and fundamentally different opinions on the most basic issues facing Israel, how do they succeed? And how they do it is through trust and dialogue,” he said in a speech to his Yamina faction in July, less than a month after taking office.

The consequence of that failure is not only a return to what Bennett referred to last year as the “maelstrom of hatred and in-fighting” that marked each of the last four election campaigns. An even more consequential consequence of that failure is that it will reinforce doubt that ideological opposites can put aside their differences and work harmoniously toward the common good.

Nice idea; difficult – perhaps impossible – to execute.

THAT IDEAL – that good people working together who disagree on something can overcome those disagreements – was this government’s main message. That was a message sent the day the government was set up. And just as the government’s main message came across as the government was sworn in, so, too, was its primary goal fulfilled on its first day in office – removing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

From then on, it was a countdown to dissolution.

Regarding the message, Bennett relayed it often in the presence of world leaders and on the world stage.

From the UN podium in September, he declared, “In Israel, after four elections in two years, with a fifth looming, the people yearned for an antidote: calm, stability, an honest attempt for political normalcy....

“About a hundred days ago my partners and I formed a new government in Israel, the most diverse government in our history. What started as a political accident can now turn into a purpose. And that purpose is unity. Today we sit together, around one table. We speak to each other with respect, we act with decency, and we carry a message: Things can be different. Even though we harbor very different political opinions, we sit together for the sake of our nation.”

But if the message of the formation of this government was that goodwill can carry the day, and that it is possible to focus on what unites, rather than on what divides, then what does the dissolution of such a government mean? That this is impossible. What kind of message does that send?

Silman’s decision to bolt the government was not, as it was presented, because of Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s letter to the heads of hospitals in the country instructing them to abide by the 2020 High Court of Justice decision allowing hametz (bread and other leavened products) into hospitals on Passover.

That was the excuse; it was not the cause. It was only a matter of time before Horowitz’s conviction that the state must have absolutely no say at all in matters of religion, and Silman’s conviction that, in a Jewish state, it must, were bound to burst forth. Politicians can only suppress their ideologies to work with politicians with competing ideologies for so long.

How long? As long as the memory of what brought them together in the first place remains strong – in this case, an intense dislike of Netanyahu, four inconclusive elections, and a burning desire to avoid a fifth one. But when that memory began to fade, when the glue binding the eight disparate parties in Bennett’s unlikely coalition started to lose its strength, then ideology was bound to return, and cracks in the coalition would widen.

In the first days of the government, the cracks were repaired through compromise and a willingness to compromise.

The government was tested almost immediately after its establishment by the postponed Jerusalem Day flag march in the Old City, and then again by how to deal with an illegal settlement outpost set up at Evyatar in response to the terrorist murder of Yehuda Guetta in May near the Tapuah junction.

The flag march went ahead as scheduled, though the route was altered to reduce points of friction with Palestinians – a compromise solution that was agreeable both to the hard-right and hard-left parties in the coalition.

And the settlers voluntarily left Evyatar, after receiving assurances that the structures there would remain, a military outpost would be established, and – after a determination is made regarding whether the land was state land or privately owned – a yeshiva would be set up there.

But that spirit of compromise and goodwill did not last, and by July Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am Party was already boycotting Knesset votes and meetings to articulate displeasure with the coalition, partly because of its aggressive efforts to pass the Family Reunification Law preventing Palestinians who marry Israeli-Arabs from acquiring Israeli citizenship.

The party threatened to boycott the Knesset again in October, around the time of the all-important budget debate and vote, if its demands to hook up the Arab and Bedouin sector to the country’s electric grid were not met.

Bennett found it necessary to remind his cabinet colleagues at the time to “focus on what we have in common, and not on disagreements.” That Bennett felt the need to make the call was an indication that the glue – opposition to Netanyahu – was losing its strength.

And what was good for Ra’am was also good for Blue and White, when that party skipped several votes in the plenum in February because of spats inside the coalition over pensions for IDF career officers and efforts to reform IDF service and National Service. Ra’am again boycotted the Knesset that same month over tax breaks for Bedouin communities.

Furthermore, an unwillingness to compromise on ideological issues led to the anti-settlement Meretz Party’s warning that it would block any attempt to legalize Evyatar – despite the earlier compromise on the issue – and to hard-right Yamina Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s determination to get the Family Reunification Law bill passed, even though it upset some of her coalition partners.

Soon after the government was set up last June, Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev said that while on certain issues it will be difficult for the coalition to cobble together a majority, there is a consensus in the coalition on “80% of the issues for the good of the country, and I hope that we can focus on them.”

That turned out to be wishful thinking.

As the months passed, and more and more contentious issues began to crop up, a dynamic was created whereby the parties and the MKs inside started to forget about that 80% and to concentrate instead on the 20% that was important ideologically to them and their voters.

Ultimately, however, that type of dynamic is destructive in a coalition with such ideologically different parties.

Last June, in presenting his government to the Knesset, Bennett said, “The government that will be formed represents many of Israel’s citizens: from Ofra to Tel Aviv, from Rahat to Kiryat Shmona. Precisely here lies the opportunity. Our principle is, we will sit together, and we will forge forward on that upon which we agree – and there is much we agree on – transport, education and so on; and what separates us, we will leave to the side.”

Silman’s move on Wednesday, however, showed that leaving aside that which separates is simply not possible – a message that is anything but uplifting. •