The ties binding Israel's coalition together have begun to loosen

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: It is unclear degree to which cracks will threaten the integrity of the entire coalition structure.

PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset. This week, various members of the coalition – foremost Abbas’s Ra’am party – signaled that they may not vote for the budget if certain conditions were not met. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset. This week, various members of the coalition – foremost Abbas’s Ra’am party – signaled that they may not vote for the budget if certain conditions were not met.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Sometimes a whole story can be summed up in just one sharp political cartoon.

Yediot Aharonot’s Guy Morad produced such a one on Monday when he drew a cartoon of seven of the eight heads of the coalition stuck together by gobs of glue, looking extremely uncomfortable, with a couple – Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman – making strenuous efforts to extract themselves.

On one side of the cartoon is a drawing of that bottle of glue, with a label – and picture of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu smack in the middle – that reads “Bibi Glue, it glues together every coalition.”

While the cartoon does not make clear whether this is amazingly strong superglue or a weaker glue of the garden-variety type, the political developments over the last few weeks are showing that the coalition cohesion of the first couple of months is starting to fade. It is appearing more and more as if the “Bibi glue” holding together this coalition is anything but super.

Since the swearing-in of the government on June 13, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has presented its very formation as the message. That Israel could form a government that includes parties from the hard Left and the hard Right, from the Jewish and Arab sectors, from pro-settlement parties and anti-settlement parties, from parties advocating gay rights and those ideologically opposed, shows that it is possible to work together.

Israel's new government at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)Israel's new government at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on June 14, 2021. (credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)

Call it Bennett’s Benetton coalition.

This is a message he communicated when he met in Washington in August with US President Joe Biden, and when he stood in Jerusalem two weeks ago with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is also a message he took with him to the UN in September.

“About 100 days ago my partners and I formed a new government in Israel – the most diverse government in our history,” he said. “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.”

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, however, Bennett sang a bit of a different song.

“I call here on my colleagues around the cabinet table, and especially on the Knesset members in the coalition, we must now focus on passing the budget,” he said.

“Let us focus, especially in the coming weeks, on what we have in common and not on disagreements. There is no point in starting to rock the boat from end to end. Even when someone is really burning to respond, certain that they are right – let us keep the bigger goal in mind.

“The people have had it with petty disputes and quarrels,” he continued. “They expect from us, the members of the government and the members of the coalition, something different.”

THAT BENNETT felt the need to make that comment, that he felt compelled to call the cabinet ministers to order – rather than to praise them as he has done repeatedly in the past for being able to work together for the greater good – is an indication that the “Bibi glue” is starting to weaken, and that uniting against a political rival may not be enough to keep such a diverse ideological coalition together over the long haul.

It was perhaps inevitable that as the days passed, as the memory of what brought the coalition together in the first place receded – an intense dislike of Netanyahu, four inconclusive elections and a burning desire to avoid a fifth one – cracks in the coalition would emerge.

It was also inevitable that as the Knesset went back into session, the opposition would put forth proposals and legislation to expose and magnify those cracks. What is unclear, however, is the degree to which these cracks will threaten the integrity of the entire coalition structure.

Bennett pleaded with his ministers to put off the disagreements, at least until after November 14, the day by which the government must pass a budget and its comprehensive economic arrangements bill or be automatically dissolved, with new elections to be held in 90 days.

This week various members of the coalition – foremost Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am party – signaled that they may not vote for the budget if certain conditions were not met. In Ra’am’s case it was anger at the lack of movement on a bill that would hook up illegally built homes in the Arab and Bedouin sector to the national electrical grid.

Will this issue be the one that brings down the government? Probably not. But the fact that Ra’am was willing to “rock the boat” just three days after Bennett urged the coalition members not to do so indicates that not everyone on board is listening to this boat’s captain, and that even if internal squabbles among the passengers may not immediately sink the vessel, they will make the journey to the destination – in this case, completing a four-and-a-half-year tenure – much, much more difficult.

This week those squabbles became apparent for all to see.

The latest example was Wednesday, when the opposition embarrassed the coalition by passing a motion on the floor calling for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate the country’s policy of placement of Arab teachers in the education system. The motion was sponsored by the Joint List Party’s leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. It passed by a vote of 47-46.

The next day senior coalition members were quoted as blaming coalition partner Meretz for the defeat, calling the party “bleeding hearts” for not voting against it, and warning that the coalition “could not continue in this manner.”

Earlier in the week, Meretz, Labor and Blue and White MKs were quoted as saying that Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar was not advancing their bills through the government’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which he chairs, but instead giving precedence to bills from members of his own New Hope Party.

Those, however, are relatively minor incidents, and the least of the coalition’s problems. The biggest headache is in the form of the bill Sa’ar published this week whereby anyone under indictment for a crime that carries more than a three-year jail sentence will not be able to form a government – a bill aimed at Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery, for which the penalty is more than three years.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has come out strongly against the proposed measure, saying that it is a bill aimed at one man, and that in a democracy, government functionaries – such as the state attorney and attorney-general, who decides on indictments – do not pick the prime minister, the nation does.

With the coalition holding only a slim 61-59 majority in the Knesset, and with key members of Yamina and Ra’am both voicing initial opposition to the bill, it is unclear whether it can pass. Although this bill will not come to the Knesset before the budget vote, and thereby cannot be used by one party or another as a reason not to vote for the budget, it is already causing tension inside the coalition.

Another key source of tension is the fate of the Evyatar settlement outpost, set up without authorization in response to the terrorist murder of Yehuda Guetta in May near the Tapuah junction.

In June, in the early days of the collation when a sense of harmony was more pervasive, a compromise solution was brokered whereby the 50 families at the site would leave, and the structures there would remain and serve as a yeshiva and as a temporary IDF outpost, until the question of the outpost’s legality was decided.

This week, however, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz) told KAN Reshet Bet radio that his party will block any attempt to legalize the outpost.

“We won’t allow Bennett’s government to be more right-wing than Netanyahu’s government was,” he said.

Voices inside the Labor faction have also come out squarely against establishing a Jewish presence at the site, meaning it is not clear how that particular square can be circled, since members of other parties in the coalition – Yamina and New Hope – have expressed a desire to see the plan carried out.

And that is not all. There is continuous tension between Bennett and Gantz, as well as between Yisrael Beytenu renegade MK Eli Avidar and Liberman, and between Shaked and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – this week she took him and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz to task for comments they made in the Knesset on the anniversary marking Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, comments she interpreted as branding the right wing as antidemocratic.

There is also difference of opinion inside the coalition over whether MKs and ministers should meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as internal contradictions in the coalition over how to deal with a possible confrontation with the Americans over their desire to open a consulate to serve the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Tension is neither rare nor unusual in politics. But when the government rests on only one vote, as this one does, an exhibition of that tension is a cause for concern – and this week that tension was on full and open display.