Israel’s “unity government” strengthened its shaky grip in power on Sunday after a tumultuous week for the ruling coalition.
However, storm clouds remain on the horizon for the ideologically eclectic government – which ranges from right-wing nationalists to left-wing Zionists and Arab-Israeli Islamists – as it approaches its first anniversary next month.
- The government’s perilous position in the Knesset – its wafer-thin one-seat majority was wiped out by the defection of right-winger Idit Silman to the opposition last month – was further weakened last Thursday when Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-wing Meretz party announced she could no longer support the coalition.
- Rinawie Zoabi’s departure reduced Naftali Bennett’s government to minority status, paving the way for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to push a bill through the Knesset forcing an early election.
- However, under pressure from the Israeli-Arab community, from which Rinawie Zoabi herself hails, the rebel MK performed a dramatic u-turn on Sunday and announced she was returning to the fold and would remain a member of the coalition after all.
- The opposition won’t be tabling a bill on Wednesday to dissolve the Knesset and on Monday its two no confidence motions in the government fell far short of the 61 votes they needed to pass, one garnering the backing of 51 MKs and the other 52.
- Bennett isn’t out of the woods yet: the government remains tied with the opposition on 60 votes and there are reports that another of his own MKs is considering defecting due to concern at the coalition’s alleged drift to the left.
- In a further sign of the political turmoil surrounding him, Bennett’s chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi, announced Monday that he will be quitting his post.
Anyone but Bibi
Formed after four inconclusive elections between 2019-21, the “unity government” was widely assumed to be a stop-gap which would fall at the first whiff of disagreement. But the coalition – which includes foreign minister Yair Lapid’s centre-left Yesh Atid party, Labor, Meretz, a clutch of right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties, the Arab-Israeli United Arab List (UAL) and Bennett’s hard-right Yamina – has sought to paper over its ideological cracks by focusing on issues which unite it. Chief among these – and the glue which continues, however tenuously, to hold it together – is a shared dislike and distrust of Netanyahu and determination to prevent him from returning to office. However, the government has suffered a series of political blows in recent weeks, including the defection of Silman. Lapid – a pivotal figure in stitching the government together and the man slated to become prime minister next year under the coalition’s “rotation agreement” – had also only just managed to get the UAL back on side after it suspended its membership of the coalition over the clashes at the Temple Mount in the run-up to Ramadan.
Rinawie Zoabi departs
Rinawie Zoabi’s resignation last week came as a political shock – as did her decision to reverse course and rejoin the coalition barely three days later.
- Rinawie Zoabi, who was given a reserved place on the Meretz slate, listed a series of issues of concern to Israeli-Arabs for her decision to resign, including the clashes at the Temple Mount, the policing of the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh – which she called “the “straw that broke the camel’s back” – and the continuing tensions over Sheikh Jarrah.
- In her resignation letter, Rinawie Zoabi said that the coalition leaders had chosen to take “hawkish, hard-line and right-wing positions” and later told Israeli television “there is no way back” from her departure.
- A gleeful Likud said the coalition had “lost its way now … lost its majority in the Knesset and no longer has the right to exist”.
- However, from the outset, the right’s rejoicing seemed premature. Rinawie Zoabi demurred from saying she’d back the opposition’s bill to dissolve the Knesset and made clear her unwillingness to help the right back to power. “Of course, I don’t want to see Netanyahu return,” Rinawie Zoabi suggested. “The alternative to the current government is far worse.”
- While the coalition is ideologically eclectic, the opposition is also deeply split between Netanyahu and his allies among the ultra-Orthodox parties and the far-right, and the Israeli-Arab Joint List. Unlike Silman, who could slip easily back into the Netanyahu camp, Rinawie Zoabi was always likely to feel uncomfortable on the opposition benches.
Man in the middle
Bennett struck an apparently relaxed tone at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, listing the government’s achievements and then suggesting the political defections showed the coalition was in the right place politically. “I think that if the MKs on the left feel that the government is too right-wing, and the MKs on the right feel that the government is too left-wing, it’s a sign that the government is in a good place in the middle,” the prime minister argued. “A good executive government, that puts aside ideological arguments, and just takes care of the citizens. That’s the meaning of compromise. This is a good government for Israel, and we’re not giving up.”
Rinawie Zoabi returns
Shortly after Bennett spoke, Rinawie Zoabi met with Lapid, his fellow cabinet minister Meretz’s Esawi Frej, and a group of Israeli-Arab mayors.
- Rinawie Zoabi came under pressure from both her colleagues in Meretz – which some polls show failing to clear the threshold to enter the Knesset if new elections were held now – and from both the Israeli-Arab mayors and wider Israeli-Arab public opinion, which is desperate to prevent Netanyahu returning to office.
- “We asked for her not to leave the coalition. We told her that we are not interested in toppling this government. We pressured her and she went back on it,” said Izz al-Din Amarna, the mayor of Kafr Kanna. Another Israeli-Arab mayor, Nazareth’s Ali Salam, reportedly suggested: “We could not just stand by without meeting with her and returning her to the government. We will not allow anyone to break up the government. We met with her for days until we convinced her.”
- The mayors’ demands were reinforced by an Arabic language social media campaign urging Rinawie Zoabi to return to the coalition; a meeting with UAL leader Mansour Abbas; and protests outsider her home.
- Referring to far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, she acknowledged the fears of a Netanyahu-led government coming to powers saying: “The alternative to this government will be Ben-Gvir as police minister, and I want to prevent that alternative.”
- Rinawie Zoabi’s swift return to the coalition was also smoothed by an apparent promise by the government to ensure the release of “hundreds of millions” of shekels which has already been pledged as part of a coalition plan to tackle the inequalities facing Arab towns. A vote – agreed as part of a deal with the UAL – is expected to be held in the Knesset this week to unlock £238m in aid to Arab local authorities.
A strengthened left …
Haaretz reported suggestions that Rinawie Zoabi’s actions may alter the government’s internal dynamics. “Government officials,” it suggested, “believe that Rinawie Zoabi’s role at the forefront of the struggle for Arab communities will strengthen the left-wing bloc of the coalition, making it difficult for members of the United Arab List to threaten the government with defection.”
… and a furious right
Netanyahu launched a predictably furious and incendiary attack on the coalition, in which he name-checked various Israeli-Arab politicians to imply the government was selling out to a community whose votes he vigorously sought at the last general election. “Bennett and Lapid are willing to do anything to survive in power and for this purpose they pay huge sums, from your money, the taxpayers, to the haters of Israel and the terror supporters upon which their government depends”, the former prime minister argued. “They have already paid NIS 50 billion to [Mansour] Abbas, last week, they paid NIS 200 million to [Joint List MK Ahmed] Tibi for some road he demanded, and today, they paid hundreds of millions to Zoabi,” the Likud leader said, making the claim that Rinawie Zoabi obtained fresh funding.
While the pressure on the coalition has temporarily eased, the last week’s ructions may have negative consequences for a government already in choppy political waters, suggest observers.
- Nir Orbach, a right-wing MK in Bennett’s Yamina party, is reportedly “on the edge” and considering quitting the coalition. Under the coalition agreement, if a defection from the right brings down the government and causes early elections, Lapid will become caretaker prime minister.
- Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, warned that Rinawie Zoabi’s behaviour may have taught potential government rebels the wrong lesson. “The notion is that from now on, any MK can extort the government to help their pet cause by professing independence and get away with it,” he wrote. “The coalition numbers 61 Knesset members. Now they all know that to get what they want, all they have to do is initiate a little tantrum.”
- Bennett has been hit by the loss of two top aides. Gan-Zvi, his chief of staff, is quitting, following the resignation of a reported rival in the prime minister’s office, foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir. Meir is believed to have urged Bennett to hew to the centre, while Gan-Zvi was keener to emphasise the importance of Yamina’s right-wing leanings.
What happens next
Stepping away from the government’s day-to-day travails, Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter pointed to a wider dysfunction in the political system. “The problem is that in our politics, there is no reward and punishment,” he wrote. “In the polls, the rightist/ultra-Orthodox bloc is nearing 61 seats, the number needed for a Knesset majority. And the government, which is only doing good and fixing the many problems left by its predecessor, is stumbling with difficulty from one drama to the next.”