Israeli political possibilities: Elections, Knesset coup, Bennett stays?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: “Big things can be done with 60 mandates, including passing a budget, and we intend to do it,” Lapid said.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (right) inaugurate a new rehabilitation center in Aleh Negev, on Tuesday. (photo credit: Haim Horenstein/Flash90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (right) inaugurate a new rehabilitation center in Aleh Negev, on Tuesday.
(photo credit: Haim Horenstein/Flash90)

When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s closest advisers were asked a month ago why he was not engaging in political activity, they said he was simply too busy.

That answer was both honest and fateful.

Bennett’s neglect of the basic work of political maintenance set the stage for coalition chairwoman Idit Silman’s defection to the opposition and falling from a 61-59 majority in the Knesset to an untenable 60-60.

In his interviews this week with the news anchors of Channels 12, 13 and KAN, he repeatedly rejected opportunities to take responsibility for his own political inadequacies.

He blamed the departure of the woman in charge of keeping his coalition together on the hounding of Silman by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich.

 Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Srugim news website above the  Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett at a conference of the Srugim news website above the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank on March 21, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Bennett vowed to keep the remaining 60 MKs in his coalition together and prevent Israel from going to another election that he said Netanyahu was pursuing just to improve his conditions in a plea agreement in his court cases.

He erroneously said that other governments in similar conditions had managed to hold on for two years, and vowed to succeed. In fact, governments without a majority have been very rare and ineffective.

WHAT DOES the public want? A Midgam poll taken for Channel 12 the day the Silman news broke found that the public is split.

Among the 510 respondents representing a statistical sample of the Israeli adult population, 34% said they wanted the government to continue despite it lacking a majority in the Knesset; 29% favored Netanyahu forming a government in the current Knesset; and 21% preferred going to a fifth election in under three years. The rest said they did not know.

Which of the three will actually happen will depend on the political developments that still lie ahead.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a point of posting on social media a picture of him working on a new state budget with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at Liberman’s home in Nokdim. At the start of a faction meeting on Thursday morning, Lapid said plans for a two-year budget were scratched, but it is possible to pass a one-year budget.

“Big things can be done with 60 mandates, including passing a budget, and we intend to do it,” he said.

Sources close to Bennett said the goal was to pass the budget and other key bills by a vote of 60 to 59. They noted that Silman, unlike renegade Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, has not said she would vote against the coalition, just that she would no longer vote with it. If she abstains or does not vote, bills can still be passed.

Silman does not want to put herself in the same place as Chikli, who will formally be declared a rebellious MK by the Knesset House Committee and prevented from running with the Likud and the Religious Zionist Party in the next election.

The model for Silman would be Merav Michaeli in the previous Knesset. She vocally opposed the coalition that Netanyahu formed with her then-party leader, Amir Peretz, but never actually voted against it.

The Knesset returns on May 9 but goes back to recess on July 27 after only 12 weeks. Then it is off through Tisha Be’av, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simhat Torah, and comes back only on October 24.

If elections would be initiated then, they would take place only in January or February, keeping 2022 an election-free year.

If the coalition can keep hanging on, the budget must be passed by March 31, 2023, to prevent the government from falling. If the government would fall on that date, elections would automatically be set for the first Tuesday after 90 days, which would be July 5.

Remaining prime minister until then – just five months less than when the rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office was set to take place on August 27 – would be a formidable accomplishment for Bennett.

Even then, there are technical loopholes in the coalition agreement that could cancel the rotation and allow Bennett to remain prime minister until a new government would be formed after the election.

Lapid repeatedly declined to talk about the rotation at the faction meeting on Thursday. Only when asked a fourth time if he still will become prime minister did he say “I think so,” sounding very different from his character on the Eretz Nehederet satire show, who lamented that he would never be prime minister, due to Silman’s departure, and angrily blamed Bennett.

Previously unheralded Yamina MKs Nir Orbach and Abir Kara made their first appearances on the show, making them household names.

Sources close to Bennett said the easiest way to stabilize the coalition would be to appoint Orbach and Kara as ministers, if Lapid would remove his veto, which has prevented Orbach’s promotion to settlements affairs minister for months. If one of them would quit via the Norwegian Law, the next candidate on the Yamina list, the party’s feisty director-general Stella Weinstein, could enter the Knesset and take Silman’s coalition chairwoman role, which no current Yamina MK wants, and solve that problem, too.

THOSE MOVES would stymie the momentum of the opposition, which celebrated Silman’s move to them as if the current government was already dead. Netanyahu even came to a political demonstration for the first time in seven years.

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi recited the sheheheyanu blessing for a long-awaited occasion in his speech about Silman at the Knesset.

“This is a historic day for the people of Israel,” Karhi said with his typical hyperbole. “It is the downfall of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist and dangerous government ever formed in the State of Israel.”

The Likud even told reporters that there is a precedent of convening the Knesset during its recess to disperse itself, as then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin ruled in August 2004. They speculated optimistically that the Knesset could be dispersed and elections initiated before Passover, freeing Israel of Bennett before the Festival of Freedom.

Since then, opposition officials have lowered their expectations significantly.

“What matters is that there are still better chances that we draft one of their MKs and get to 61 than they take one of ours,” an opposition official said.

The opposition’s plan is to bring a no-confidence motion to the plenum that could pass with 61 MKs and use it to persuade coalition MKs to jump ship and prevent elections in which they would not return to the Knesset.

The Likud would need to draft seven more MKs beyond Chikli and Silman to build a new government under Netanyahu in the current Knesset. Likud officials are no longer talking about backing a government led by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu accepting a plea agreement in his legal cases and allowing a Likud primary to elect a new leader would make it much easier for the Likud to return to power, but there is still no Likud MK courageous enough to stand up to his party leader and demand that he get out of the way.

While most Likud MKs would prefer to form a government in the current Knesset, Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin, who is the MK closest to Netanyahu, prefers going to elections and forming a new government afterward, which he believes could more easily implement the judicial reforms on the party’s agenda.

“It would encourage our voters to go out and cast ballots, because it would be a real choice between Lapid and Netanyahu,” a Likud source said. “We wouldn’t have to persuade people that Bennett is left-wing anymore. There would be a real choice between Left and Right. That would make it easier for us to get to 61.”