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Israel's governing coalition increasingly unstable

After legislator Idit Silman left the coalition, and following the recent wave of terror attacks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is fighting to keep his government together.

“The situation is tough. It can’t continue like this. [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett is bringing us all down with him, into an abyss.”

A senior minister from the leftwing flank of the ruling coalition offered this bleak prognosis April 12. In a conversation with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, the minister expressed disappointment with Bennett, who was unable to hold his tiny faction together. The minister was responding to the surprise decision by Knesset Member Idit Silman to bolt from the coalition last week. As a result, the coalition lost its slender, one-seat majority in the Knesset.

According to that minister, the coalition has no way to survive for any serious amount of time under the current circumstances. It is very possible that the government will fall within a few months.

Ever since Silman left the coalition, ministers and members of Knesset alike have been trying to relay a sense of optimism. They will not attack Bennett publicly, but the overall mood is easily detectable. They are furious at him.

“It’s too big a job for him,” said one of them in a private conversation that was reported to Al-Monitor. After the coalition handed Bennett the prime minister’s office, even though he headed a tiny party, they believe he has failed at this task.

However, his failure reflects on the entire government. Should the Knesset be dissolved and new elections be held, many of the coalition’s members will not be reelected. Many polls predict that the New Hope party of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar will not even pass the electoral threshold, and that is just one example.

Ever since Silman first made her announcement, Bennett has been fighting to block any momentum it may have caused. He is now left with a party of just five members, most of whom negotiated individually with the Likud and weighed the option of leaving their party. So far, Bennett has been able to restore a modicum of stability, but there is no telling what will happen in the near future.

Bennett has no plans to give up, as evidenced by his emergency campaign over the last few days. On Monday he gave interviews to the three major television stations, in an effort to show that it was still business as usual. He maintained his composure as he reminded everyone that the alternative was the return of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an interview with Channel 13 he said, “The question isn’t Idit Silman. The question now is whether we will subject Israel to elections, and what I mean by this is an election intended to benefit Netanyahu as he negotiates a plea bargain. That’s the whole story. This whole mess is intended to improve his standing in court.”

In each interview, he attacked Netanyahu’s supporters, saying that they are not really rightwing. In an interview with Channel 12 News, he said: “The real right is whoever stops the suitcases stuffed with cash from entering Gaza. He started that, and I stopped it. The real right is whoever responds to every incendiary balloon sent from Gaza, instead of resorting to predecessor’s excuse that there was an electrical short. The right is not whoever screams and curses into a megaphone. That is not the right. That is ‘Bibism,’" referring to Netanyahu’s popular nickname.

Bennett has lost most of whatever small group of supporters he had on the right, but the Likud under Netanyahu continues to gain momentum and is much stronger than it was in the last election.

People disappointed with Bennett have found sanctuary with Netanyahu or the rightwing extremist Religious Zionist party. Bennett’s interviews aren’t convincing them that he is the right person for the job. 

The interviews were intended to give Bennett a much-needed boost, but it wasn’t very successful. A well-publicized dinner with the remaining members of his shrunken Yamina party did not have the desired effect. The sight of the prime minister with the tiny faction that was the ruling party only underscored how weak he is.

At the Ilka Bar in Tel Aviv, where a deadly terrorist attack claimed the lives of three Israelis last Thursday evening, Bennett raised a glass and told the camera, “We won’t let them — our enemies — stop us from living our lives. We will not let them defeat us. We are going back to living our lives, while taking the fight to them, to their bases, and to their sources. God willing, we will win.”

But the visit was subject to serious criticism from his political rivals and others. Raising a glass in the middle of the bar, just one day after the funerals of the victims, was seen as insensitive. His spokespeople may have misjudged it, but given his situation today, Bennett does not have room to make too many mistakes.

Efforts to bring Silman back into the coalition have not been successful to date, leaving the government with just 60 Knesset members and nowhere to grow. And Bennett has been courting his remaining members to ensure that they don’t find their way to Netanyahu’s embrace.

Bennett’s Cabinet, too, is trying to extricate him from the troubles brewing in his own party. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, the architect of the coalition and the strongman in the government, granted a number of  benefits to members of Yamina. Nir Orbach received a promise to postpone cuts to subsidies to daycare centers for the families of yeshiva students, who do not work.

These cuts were originally a major campaign issue for Liberman in his fight against the ultra-Orthodox sector. Orbach, who comes from a religious community (Orthodox but not ultra-Orthodox), threatened to quit the coalition too, if these plans were not overturned. His ultimatum succeeded. Liberman acquiesced to his demand. Similarly, Deputy Minister Abir Kara, who represents the self-employed, received a nice bundle of benefits for his constituents from the finance minister.

The question now is how long the coalition can last, given that it can be extorted so easily by a single member of Knesset. Even if it does manage to survive, the sense that it is living on borrowed times creates a sense of chaos among its members. Their agendas are radicalized, and they make more and more demands from the government. Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that the coalition will fall apart.