Israel's coalition crisis: Meretz MK bolts Bennett's government

MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi's departure will give the opposition a majority of 61 to 59 MKs and could bring about an election in the fall.

 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.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid suffered a serious blow on Thursday when another MK announced that she is leaving their governing coalition.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi sent a letter to Bennett and Lapid saying that she no longer saw herself as part of the coalition. She also announced that she would not accept her appointment as Israel’s next consul general in Shanghai.

“I entered politics because I saw myself as an emissary of Arab society, which I represent,” Zoabi wrote. “Unfortunately over the last few months for narrow political reasons, the heads of the coalition preferred to strengthen their right side. Again and again, the heads of the coalition preferred to take harsh hawkish right-wing steps on key issues related to Arab society.”

She cited al-Aqsa, the Temple Mount, Sheikh Jarrah, settlements, house demolitions, the Citizenship Law and land confiscations in the Negev.

“When it came to the needs of Arab society and communities, housing, employment and education, they were indifferent,” said Zoabi.

 MK GHAIDA RINAWIE ZOABI attends a Special  Committee on Arab Society Affairs meeting, in the  Knesset in June (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) MK GHAIDA RINAWIE ZOABI attends a Special Committee on Arab Society Affairs meeting, in the Knesset in June (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

But Zoabi later backtracked, telling MKs that she does not want to be the one to bring about an election.

“I have reached the point of no-return and can no longer support the coalition,” she told Channel 12. “There is no way back from leaving the coalition.”

Asked how she would vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset if it is brought to the plenum on Wednesday, her response was purposely vague.

“I will vote according to my conscience,” she said. “We will see what happens. I won’t automatically blow up the coalition.”

Rinawie Zoabi did not tell Bennett, Lapid, Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz or even her staff about her decision before she published her letter. They found out about it from a media report. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu found out via a confidant of Rinawie Zoabi in the Knesset.

Horowitz attempted to persuade her to remain in the coalition and started driving to her home in Nazareth, but she said she would not meet with him until Friday. Horowitz expressed confidence that he will succeed in keeping her in the coalition.

“Our coalition is important and we are working to keep it together,” Horowitz said. “Breaking apart the coalition would be a prize for Netanyahu and [MK Itamar] Ben-Gvir and very damaging to the entire society, both Jews and Arabs.”

According to the coalition agreement, if the government is brought down by an MK from Meretz, Bennett would remain caretaker prime minister during elections and until a new government is formed.

Zoabi’s departure will give the opposition a majority of 61 to 59 MKs and could bring about an election in the fall and as early as mid-September.

Joint List head Ayman Odeh said Rinawie Zoabi was right that the government should be brought down due to its right-wing extremist decisions.

The appointment of Rinawie Zoabi as consul-general in Shanghai had been put on hold, because a professional committee in the Civil Service Commission deemed her unqualified for the sensitive post.

Netanyahu convened opposition party heads on Thursday night. Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin responded that his party would soon return to lead the government.

“The Bennett-Lapid government that failed and lost its way now also lost its majority in the Knesset and no longer has the right to exist,” Levin said.

Bennett’s coalition has been unstable since Yamina MK Idit Silman defected to the opposition in April, taking away the government’s slim majority and bringing Bennett’s Yamina Party in the coalition to only five seats, unprecedented for an Israeli prime minister.

Earlier this week, Lapid claimed that while the coalition had its challenges, it was functioning.

“I’m not claiming for a moment that the government doesn’t have problems, but it works, and it works great,” he said. “And it will continue to work and do good things for the State of Israel as long as the parties that make up the coalition act responsibly.”

Based on the coalition agreement between Bennett and Lapid, if Zoabi’s defection to the opposition brings about new elections, Bennett will remain Israel’s interim prime minister. If the government were to fall due to a move by two members of the government’s right-wing bloc, Lapid would have taken over as the interim prime minister.