Israel's fragile coalition is drifting from one crisis to another

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Naftali Bennett’s coalition fixed its Ra’am problem, but new significant woes are on the way.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett sits in the Knesset this week.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett sits in the Knesset this week.

A political cartoon in Maariv this week portrayed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett swimming in shark-filled waters.

In the cartoon, Bennett says in English “So far so good...,” but he does not see that there are more than a dozen sharks trailing him behind his back.

The cartoon accurately illustrated where Bennett’s government stands right now, after resolving its coalition crisis with the Ra’am (United Arab List) Party.

That crisis was a reminder of how difficult it is to survive with a slim majority in the Knesset of 60 to 59 on a good day. It also demonstrated how sensitive the coalition is to any issue that could provoke controversy.

Mansour Abbas leading Ra’am into the coalition was celebrated worldwide as a historic breakthrough for Israel. Along with the Abraham Accords, an Arab party joining the coalition was seen internationally as Israel successfully entering a new era of mutually beneficial strategic cooperation with the Arab world despite the conflict with the Palestinians remaining unresolved.

 Ra'am head Mansour Abbas announces the decision to remain in the coalition on May 11, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Ra'am head Mansour Abbas announces the decision to remain in the coalition on May 11, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Abbas enthusiastically and optimistically told The Jerusalem Post at an October press conference at the Knesset, where he presented the government’s massive new allocations to the Arab sector, that it would now become natural for Arab parties to join every Israeli governing coalition forever.

That historic breakthrough was nearly lost, due to Temple Mount violence and the lack of honest reporting about it. Like countless times in the past, violence on the Temple Mount that was exaggerated and fanned by fake news threatened to derail the sensitive fabric of life in the Holy Land.

Reports in the Arab world that made it look as though Israel was purposely trying to kill Muslims at prayer at the Aqsa Mosque nearly made it impossible for Abbas to climb down from the Mount and back into the coalition.

Even when Abbas was finally ready to end the crisis, another incident magnified in the international Arabic media around the world got in the way. Wednesday’s incident in Jenin in which Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead – and the bad press Israel got in its aftermath – could have forced Abbas to continue to freeze his party’s membership in the coalition, vote for a bill that would initiate an election and perhaps even torpedo Bennett’s government.

Abbas canceled a press conference he had scheduled in Kafr Kassem, called Abu Akleh a martyr and said he would insist on an international investigation of the incident. He would have carried on his protest of the incident longer and scored more points with his constituents, if he had had time.

But Abbas had to announce how his party would vote on the Likud’s Knesset dissolution bill in the afternoon and could not wait. His speech about “giving the coalition another chance” could have been written the day he began what was essentially a fake crisis that he initiated to look like the defender of al-Aqsa while the Knesset was on recess.

Abbas knows that he needs as much time as he can get in the coalition for his constituents to be able to see with their own eyes – or at least with their pocketbooks – the positive results of him joining.

WHAT MADE it easier for Abbas to justify unfreezing Ra’am’s membership in the coalition was the foolishly unruly behavior of the opposition.

He spoke immediately after opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu blasted him in a speech in the Knesset plenum that was supposed to be about Theodor Herzl.

Netanyahu picked yet another fight with Abbas, even though Ra’am could be a very easy coalition partner for him in the future. Every time Netanyahu calls Abbas “a terror supporter” or pretends he did not negotiate Ra’am building a bond with the Likud, Bennett’s coalition gets stronger.

The most right-wing MK in the Knesset, Itamar Ben-Gvir, helped strengthen the coalition even more by crashing Abbas’s press conference in the Knesset. Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid said later that the public prefers Abbas in the coalition over Ben-Gvir.

Then there was the opposition’s most uncouth MK, David Amsalem, who shocked MKs in both the coalition and opposition three times on Wednesday.

First he started an unnecessary fight with Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, threatening the former Jerusalem police chief. Then he insisted on responding in the plenum to a consensus bill proposed by deaf MK Shirley Pinto that would require government offices to speak to deaf people via text messages. The bill passed 40-0, but Amsalem still had to speak against it.

Finally, Amsalem left a live interview with Channel 12 to cast the deciding vote on a bill. Meretz MK Yair Golan was on the same program, and the two had paired off to leave the coalition and opposition with the same balance in the plenum. But Amsalem left Golan as he was speaking next to him and raced up to vote.

It was less noticed by the coalition, but another MK who embarrassed herself was former coalition chairwoman Idit Silman. She claimed in a TV interview that one of the reasons she defected to the opposition was that the government had built a “Reform Kotel.”

She knows full well that no progress has been made on implementing the Western Wall agreement, that the family prayer site is not intended only for Reform Jews, that Reform is not a slur, and that while Bennett did build what he called the “Ezrat Israel,” it was when he was Jerusalem affairs minister under Netanyahu in 2014.

Silman said in the Knesset cafeteria that she thinks her bolting the coalition will prevent the site’s renovation. She said that since she left, the coalition has had to go “rightward” – yamina in Hebrew. But the coalition’s cooperation with the Joint List that came as the result of her departure has proven that the opposite is true.

NOW THAT the fight with Abbas is over, there are plenty of challenges that await the coalition.

The sharks approaching Bennett include Jerusalem Day celebrations in two weeks, next month’s visit of US President Joe Biden to Israel, attempts to pass next year’s state budget that will begin on June 16, wavering Yamina MK Nir Orbach’s demand to hook up unauthorized outposts to the national electricity grid, and the pregnancy of New Hope faction head Sharren Haskel. Haskel is due at the end of July, around the same time the Knesset will leave for its next recess. If she gives birth early, she may have to bring her newborn into the plenum to vote, as Pinto did six days after the birth of her child in December.

Jerusalem Day will be the first challenge. Opposition officials said they intend to exploit the holiday to anger Ra’am again, but they said they do have limits.

“We won’t cause a security crisis to cause a political crisis with Ra’am, but we will call for people to go on the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day, of course,” a Likud spokesman said.

The spokesman said he did not think Netanyahu would ascend the Temple Mount, but acknowledged that it would not be the first time such a controversial step was taken by the head of the opposition from the Likud.

“It’s clear to everyone that the next crisis with Ra’am is only a matter of time,” the spokesman said. “This past week was not ideal for the opposition, but we won’t give up. They have dozens of bills in the pipeline that we stopped. They aren’t even trying to pass them. Even some they put on the agenda they took back. This doesn’t look like a government that can last very long. It can last a few weeks, but it is bound to end soon.”

In the weeks ahead, the coalition intends to continue the strategy that worked this week. Uncontroversial socioeconomic legislation will be advanced. Bills that do not have a consensus will have to wait.

Coalition bills will be put on the agenda only if a majority is obtained for them well in advance. Opposition bills will be passed by the coalition if they make sense and do not cost money, as eight were on Wednesday.

De facto coalition chairman Boaz Toporovsky said he intends to proceed with caution, knowing full well that there are plenty of sharks ready to attack. But he was not afraid of exulting about the opposition backing down from bringing the Knesset dissolution bill to a vote.

“The opposition surrendered and pulled back the bill,” Toporovsky said. “Another political spin crashed. They are scared. They know they have no majority, neither in the Knesset nor in the public. I recommend that all our doubters wait patiently and watch our government be strong and function. The unified coalition will continue to come to the Knesset and work hard for the entire Israeli public.”