Israeli Government Loses Majority: One Final Crack in an Already Fragile Coalition?

Cracks in The Israeli Knesset
© Canva photo stock, picture by John Theodor

On June 13th 2021, the current Israeli government was formed in hopes of ending a political crisis that dragged Israel through four national elections in two years. After less than a year, this government lost its narrow majority of 61 seats out of 120 in parliament, shifting down to 60, as Idit Silman, PM Bennett’s majority whip, joins the opposition. This means that the coalition's ability to pass laws has weakened, but the government can still function and is far from being doomed. Without a bigger political shift, the government should continue functioning. The future of the government now mostly depends on whether the Arab parties in opposition choose to maintain their neutrality.

The Political Deadlock Explained

In order to understand what this means for the future of this government, we first have to understand what led to its formation. In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted for breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. Netanyahu’s refusal to resign sparked nationwide demonstrations against the government and prompted many political parties to refuse to cooperate with the Likud, Netanyahu’s party. As a result, after 12 consecutive years in power, former PM Netanyahu could no longer gather the 61 votes needed to form a government.

However, while a united Liberal-Democratic bloc managed to block Netanyahu’s Nationalist-Religious bloc, they also did not have the numbers to form an alternative government on their own. This is because while the Israeli parliament can be divided into two main blocs, it actually has a third bloc, consisting of four small Arab parties. Simply put, while the two big blocs maintain around 50+ seats in parliament, neither can form a government without at least one Arab party.

The easy solution for this deadlock should be a joint Liberal-Democratic-Arab coalition. Still, while the Arab parties were more than willing to aid in blocking Netanyahu, they did not agree to support an alternative Zionist government. This has not happened since the formation of Rabin’s government in 1992. Over the years, governments formed by the winning bloc adding one or two parties from the losing bloc to their coalition – but such a government was no longer on the table for Netanyahu.

Abbas and Bennett Breaking the Deadlock

Hoping to solve an unsolvable problem, the Israeli public voted on March 2021 and Netanyahu’s bloc gathered 59 seats, two short of a coalition. Desperate to form a coalition, Netanyahu negotiated with every possible party leader, as well as potential defectors, but found none in the Liberal-Democratic bloc. However, these elections were different. There were two free agents challenging the three-bloc reality. The first, Naftali Bennett, current Prime Minister and leader of a right-wing nationalist party. The second, Mansour Abbas, leader of the Islamist party. While Bennett swore loyalty to Netanyahu’s bloc, Abbas completely changed the status quo, not only by agreeing to support a Zionist government, but also by not siding with either bloc but pragmatically negotiating with both Netanyahu & Yair Lapid, head of the Liberal bloc.

With Abbas and Bennett, Netanyahu would have 63 seats and could easily form a government. Nevertheless, Netanyahu faced a new challenge. While Abbas was willing to join his government, his far-right nationalist partners refused. Without both, he would have no majority. The Liberal-Democratic bloc had no such internal reservations regarding Abbas, congratulating him for his brave decision. Lapid faced a different challenge. Even with Abbas, his bloc could not form a government. He needed either the rest of the Arab parties to join, or a party from the opposing bloc. After being rejected by the other Arab parties, the Liberal bloc focused on convincing Bennett.

Bennett made it clear that his party identifies with Netanyahu’s bloc and prefers to form a government with it. Still, he also promised his voters to form an alternative government if Netanyahu fails again. This new government, he insisted, must be a “right-wing government”, even if Netanyahu does not lead it. After Netanyahu exhausted his possibilities, Lapid was given the task of forming a government. He quickly made Bennett an offer he could not refuse. Bennett will become Prime Minister, backed by the Liberal-Democratic bloc as well as by Abbas’ Ra’am party.

In the new coalition agreement, it was agreed that Lapid would replace Bennett after two years as Prime Minister. To alleviate Bennett’s concerns about leading a government he couldn’t control, Lapid’s bloc had equal voting power to Bennett’s six-member Yamina party in government decisions. While this allowed the Liberal bloc to form and maintain a functioning yet fragile 61 seat government, it also greatly inflated Yamina’s influence and power. In a way, reflecting the real veto power that Yamina members hold.

The Government Loses Majority

On April 6th 2022, MK Idit Silman, a member of PM Bennett’s Yamina party and his appointed majority whip, declared that she will be leaving the coalition. Bringing it down from 61 seats to exactly half of the parliament. She is not the first deserter from Yamina, as MK Amichai Chikli left the party as well when the government was formed. The move caught many coalition members off guard, as Bennett assured them, there will be no “Second Chikli”.

Silman claims that her resignation is the result of this government hurting the Jewish identity of Israel in a way she cannot accept. This statement refers to her recent clash with left-wing party Minister of Health, Nitzan Horowitz. With Passover around the corner, the two failed to agree on kosher regulations in Israeli hospitals. While Horowitz conceded that all hospitals remain Kosher, he refused to ban people from privately bringing in non-Kosher food into the hospitals. This state and religion divide is what Silman suggests convinced her to finally leave the coalition.

Many within the coalition insist that Silman left after long negotiations with Netanyahu. In these talks, they agreed that Silman would join the Likud party, and be Netanyahu’s next Minister of Health. It is claimed that Silman was also assured that another Yamina member would join her very soon, and the opposition would win the majority. According to the coalition, the Passover issue is just a timely excuse to justify a completely interest-based move.

Coalition and Opposition Reactions

Silman’s move became the focus of a narrative war between coalition and opposition regarding her motivation, but also regarding the consequences of her decision. As Netanyahu celebrated the end of the government and encouraged others to follow Silman’s lead, party leaders within the coalition insisted that the crisis was not that severe and the current government would continue to function.

Since last week, the entire Nationalist-Religious bloc has rallied behind Netanyahu, both in welcoming Silman as she “returns home” and in encouraging other Yamina members to join her. This is a clear shift in policy, as until just a few days ago, all Yamina members were persona non grata, and angry protesters hounded them day and night. This new strategy is based on an understanding that Yamina is not an inherent part of the current government, and its members are unhappy with many of the government’s policies. This is a win-win strategy for the Nationalist-Religious bloc, because supporting Yamina and offering them an alternative, forces the coalition to choose: compromise with Yamina or disbandment.

On the other hand, the coalition insists that nothing substantial has changed. While they no longer have an absolute majority, they maintain a relative one, meaning that while they have only 60 seats, Netanyahu’s bloc has only 54 seats. This means that the coalition could still pass laws, as most legislation requires a relative majority. This is again due to the rest of the Arab parties being a part of the opposition, but not Netanyahu’s bloc. Some legislation does require 61 votes, and the coalition has split again between its two options. Right-wing forces within the coalition hope to convince Silman to return after showing her that the government persists and that Netanyahu’s promises are empty. Alternatively, the coalition’s left-wing forces try to expand the Jewish-Arab cooperation and add more Arab parties to the coalition to compensate for Silman’s departure.

What Can We Expect?

Regardless of the two competing narratives, there is a factual middle ground. The coalition took a big hit last week and now has to delay or forsake a substantial part of its planned legislation. On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean that the opposition has the upper hand or that the government is doomed. As long as the Arab parties that are not part of the coalition remain neutral, the coalition can continue to function normally and pass most planned laws.

When calculating the future of this government, there are three options: either the government survives or it breaks down. If it breaks down, either an alternative government is formed or the parliament is disbanded, leading to early elections. The simplest option to explain is the survival of this government. It requires maintaining Arab parties’ neutrality and that no one else leaves the coalition. Technically speaking, the opposition requires both the Arab parties and another coalition member to defect.

Even better for the government would be to persuade some opposition members to join the coalition in order to push back the threat of losing the majority. Many Members of the Knesset might consider defecting to avoid risking not being re-elected. However, as previously mentioned, elections are not the only alternative. The law allows the opposition to nominate an alternative government, and if it has at least 61 votes – it replaces the current government without new elections. The Arab parties would not agree to support another Netanyahu-led government, but claim to be open to alternative candidates. This presents the opposition with both a challenge and an opportunity.

In order to form a new government, the opposition could offer the Prime Minister position to an agreed-upon coalition party leader. This tactic, not very different from Lapid’s, might prove seductive enough to finally break the current government down. The best candidate for desertion among the coalition party leaders would be Defense Minister Benny Gantz. That is due to his good relations with the Nationalist-Religious bloc, and not being seen as a potential threat by Netanyahu.

In Short

If nobody else leaves the coalition, it could survive as a lame duck for quite a while. Even if another member leaves, Arab party cooperation is still necessary for disbanding the government. Regardless, both sides are expected to continue searching for deserters in this new 60-60 reality.

The opposition could also form an alternative government around a coalition party that deserts in exchange for the Prime Minister position. This new government will most likely be short-lived as a shortcut to early elections.

Essentially, the Arab parties in the opposition will play a deciding role in either maintaining the government or dismantling it. The decision is made more complicated by the fact that while they see the current government as the lesser ideological evil, they have a clear interest in the government’s failure, as its success will strengthen Abbas at their expense.