My word: Passover, the House, the laws and disorder - opinion

MK Idit Silman resigned her seat in Knesset, throwing the government into disorder as it enters the Passover recess.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Idit Silman seen in better days for them at a Knesset plenum session last July.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Idit Silman seen in better days for them at a Knesset plenum session last July.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

There is something symbolic about the coalition being thrown into a crisis during the Passover recess by MK Idit Silman’s resignation, ostensibly over the issue of allowing hametz (leavened products) to be taken into hospitals. 

Silman, a Yamina MK who was also coalition whip, caught Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, her party leader, off guard early Wednesday when she announced she was quitting the coalition with its razor-thin majority of 61-59, saying she could not “lend a hand to the damage to the Jewish character” of Israel. 

She was reacting to the directive by Meretz leader and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz to hospital directors ordering them to abide by a High Court ruling, meaning hospitals should not to ask visitors to refrain from bringing hametz into medical centers during the week of the Passover holiday.

Silman, a reminder that Yamina was built on the ruins of the National Religious Party, was upset that Horowitz was turning the matter into an issue and angry that Bennett didn’t publicly back her and instead berated her for issuing an ultimatum.

“Beyond being a personal offense and a contempt for coalition members, it is a contempt for almost 70 percent of the Israeli public,” she scolded Horowitz at the beginning of the week. “The People of Israel have certain values that entire generations have died over, and we in the current government will not be part of their overthrow and we must respect the public.”

 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)

The hametz issue might have been the excuse, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Bennett has been otherwise engaged. He forgot that while leading the country, he could not ignore what was happening close to home in his own party. While he was trying to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, traveling to Moscow on a Shabbat no less, the leaders of other Israeli parties have been trying to boost morale and status within their own lists. The prime minister was dizzy, or perhaps jetlagged, from his diplomatic jaunts and happy to concentrate on his international standing, particularly following the trilateral Sharm el-Sheikh summit swiftly followed by the Negev Summit where Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hosted counterparts from four Arab countries.

During a spike in deadly terror attacks at the end of last month that left 11 dead within eight days, Bennett was quick to enter “Mr. Security” mode, not realizing that his political standing was also endangered by other topics. 

The government, never stable and now teetering, is probably not in imminent danger of collapse simply because the Knesset is on Passover recess for the next few weeks. But the politicking will not be taking a break during this period and there will be efforts to woo other wavering or dissatisfied MKs from one side to the other to break the coalition-opposition numerical tie. 

Despite his own legal battles, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu immediately congratulated Silman on her resignation and began a round of talks with MKs aimed at creating a new coalition should elections be called yet again. He is assessing his chances of attracting another rebel from Yamina to go along with Silman and earlier renegade Amichai Chickli, or from Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope or Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party – perhaps even Gantz himself. However unlikely the Gantz scenario seems, almost anything is possible in Israeli politics. It’s not a science, it’s an art.

There are, of course, many serious topics on the national agenda – the security situation, the Iranian threat and the Vienna talks, the challenges of the Russia-Ukraine war fallout and the need to absorb a wave of immigrants as a result of that conflict. Silman’s walkout puts another issue back on the table, what it means to be the Jewish state. 

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has until now linked her political fate to Bennett’s, might even use the occasion to make her own move, particularly after her run-in with coalition partners over her insistence on focusing on Jewish immigrants and those eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, rather than the broader demand to accept anyone claiming refugee status, as Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, among others, advocates.

Part of the art is a question of timing. As some commentators have pointed out, being the first person to jump political ship is considered courageous; the second person is looked upon as a copycat; and anyone who leaps after that is perceived as abandoning a sinking ship to save their own political careers – something the general public might not reward in a general election. Although when it comes to Israeli elections, here too, nothing can be ruled out.

The current government has been in office only 10 months. That it made it this far might be considered an achievement in its own right. Bennett managed to become prime minister although he was head of a faction of just seven MKs (now down to five), creating an extraordinary coalition comprised of ministers from eight disparate parties united mainly by the desire to topple Netanyahu. With parties ranging from Yamina and New Hope on the Right, Yesh Atid and Blue and White in the Center, Labor and Meretz on the Left and far-Left and the hard-to-define Yisrael Beytenu and the United Arab List, the coalition was its own opposition. 

Arguably, the government’s creation marked both its beginning and the beginning of its end. The “Just not Bibi” philosophy could take it only so far. As I warned when the government was sworn in, “There is likely to be political paralysis – a stalemate with the emphasis more on the ‘stale’ than the ‘mate.’” This paralysis will be even more evident without the tiny coalition majority that it had until now. Not that Netanyahu has any reason to be complacent. Even the 29-MK Likud party he heads is far from being united behind him.

IN THE spirit of the upcoming holiday, it is time for Bennett to put his house in order – the government, the Knesset, and his home. It is incredible that after nearly a year in office, Bennett has not yet moved into the Prime Minister’s Residence. 

The official Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem is important as a symbol. It’s hard to stress the point that embassies should move to Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, when the prime minister chooses to spend most of his time at his home in Ra’anana, a place most foreigners can’t pronounce, let alone locate on a map. 

Bennett has dismissed criticism of his sticking to the sleepy suburb in the Sharon as due to security considerations by the Shin Bet and the fact that the official Jerusalem residence is undergoing renovations. It should be noted, however, that his Ra’anana home has also been upgraded at the taxpayers’ expense to better meet the needs of the prime minister. But I understand that this is not the week to insist he order the moving company.

Even if the government survives the current crisis, and the likely domino effect of further crises, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is scheduled to take over from Bennett as prime minister in August 2023. Are the taxpayers then expected to fork out even more money to improve the Lapid home in Tel Aviv’s posh Ramat Aviv Gimmel neighborhood?

The frenzy of spring-cleaning that is evident this time of year in Israel is referred to as Passover cleaning – nikayon Pessah. The image of the Knesset does not, unfortunately, spring to mind when discussing cleanliness and good order.

Keep in mind that whatever happens, someone is going to have to try to clean up the political mess – and it will inevitably be the ordinary taxpaying citizen who pays in all senses. 

In Israel, clean-up campaigns of the anti-corruption type are known as biur hametz, which is a truly cultural reference reflecting the practice of burning leavened products before Passover. It is preceded by a bedikat hametz, checking that no forbidden product has been left in the home.

The current crisis might have been sparked by hametz, but you don’t need to search too hard to find reasons this government is crumbling ahead of the Passover holiday.

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