Will Israel's government be brought down by bread? - opinion

Many point to the hametz crisis as the catalyst which brought this coalition government to its knees. Yet, I argue this should be looked at through a wider lens.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks with MK Idit Silman in the Knesset in January. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett speaks with MK Idit Silman in the Knesset in January.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Israel’s coalition government, the most fragile in recent years and the first one ever to include an Arab non-Zionist party has reached a breaking point. Idit Silman, the coalition’s whip, announced today her defection to the opposition, thus denying the government its narrow Knesset majority of one.

Silman, a religiously-observant member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, has been butting heads in recent weeks with Nitzan Horowitz, Israel’s minister of health and leader of the left-wing Meretz party. 

The reason behind the clash was a letter sent by Horowitz to Israeli hospitals instructing administrators to allow visitors and patients to bring hametz (leavened food that is not kosher for Passover) onto their premises during the holiday. 

Horowitz insisted he was merely reminding them of Israel’s Supreme Court ruling in this regard, but Silman was not happy. She scolded Horowitz, claiming his instructions were an insult “to 70% of the public” and a “contempt toward coalition members.”

Many point to the hametz crisis as the catalyst which brought this coalition government to its knees. Yet, I argue this should be looked at through a wider lens, focusing on the how and not just the what.

 FINANCE MINISTER Avigdor Liberman: Four catalysts behind the chaos. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) FINANCE MINISTER Avigdor Liberman: Four catalysts behind the chaos. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Bennett’s government was heralded as a refreshing wind of change by its supporters, meant to unite the people after many years of fractured politics and social fragmentation that threatened the very existence of Israel. One of this government’s proudest moments was passing a state budget, after a few years during which no such budget was passed.

However, that might just have been a poisoned chalice. As part of the state budget, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman has announced a few uncomfortable measures, especially vis-à-vis the ultra-orthodox community. These included denying government funding for after-school activities for the unemployed (a reality prevalent with many haredi families) and raising taxes and prices of sugar-sweetened beverages and disposable tableware, both hugely popular with traditionally large haredi families. 

At one very interesting point, Mansour Abbas, the head of the Islamist Ra’am party, who is a member of the coalition, offered to allocate some of their own political funds to support haredi communities as a result.

One might argue – as Liberman did – that these measures are driven by state considerations of social and physical public health and the need to create a change within the haredi community to make for more viable integration into Israeli society and economy. However, Liberman’s complicated history with the haredim casts a shadow over the way his moves are perceived by the public. 

In February, at a meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu faction in the Knesset, he blamed the haredim’s lack of sufficient participation in the workforce for the escalating cost of living in Israel. Haredi leaders were infuriated and accused him of blatant antisemitism. In March of last year, during a media interview, he said that “we will send the ultra-Orthodox together with Bibi on a wheelbarrow to a landfill,” enraging haredi leaders to a boiling point.

It is no secret that Israeli society is facing significant economic challenges with the rise in the cost of living and lack of affordable housing, alongside the sharp increase in gas and utility prices. Naturally, there are many elements – unrelated to Israel or politics – which play a part in these cost increases, and not all decisions made by the Finance Ministry are devoid of merit. 

However, in life, many a time, the how poses as much of an obstacle as the what. When these strict measures are taken against such a horrid backdrop and a cascade of negative feelings, the ship is bound to hit a rock.

Liberman’s standing with the general public has also suffered due to the economic hardships, a reality not uncharacteristic of a finance minister’s term. Once more, Liberman’s reactions have not been the most compassionate. 

Reacting to measures taken by Israeli hospital residents protesting the conditions of their employment, Liberman was quick to point the finger at the leader of the protest claiming her motives were selfish as “she needed more time at her private Botox clinic.” To his critics, he suggested they appear at story-telling festivals to share their imaginary claims against his economic plans.

Israeli social and economic disparities are a harsh and unpleasant reality and have been for years. In addition, recent global and regional economic trends have made it all the more difficult for Israel’s middle and lower classes to put bread on the table.

And it is that bread that is now eating away at the support and longevity of the government.

The writer is a former spokesperson of Israel’s Consulate General in NY, a strategic consultant and senior vice president at JBS-Jewish Broadcasting Service.