Israel government loses majority as religious lawmaker quits

April 6, 2022 GMT
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a press conference on an Israeli Defense Force base in Beit El in the West Bank, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a press conference on an Israeli Defense Force base in Beit El in the West Bank, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A lawmaker quit Israel’s ruling coalition on Wednesday after a dispute over religious observance during the Passover holiday, throwing the fragile alliance into disarray without a majority in parliament and raising the prospect of a new round of elections.

Backbencher Idit Silman had recently objected to the government allowing bread to be brought into public hospitals, counter to the Jewish religious practice of refraining from bread and other leavened foods during Passover. Hospitals cater to patients of all religions.

But there were also indications that Silman, a religious lawmaker with strong nationalist views, had been uneasy sitting in Israel’s diverse coalition and had been plotting her exit for some time.

“Key values in my worldview are inconsistent with current reality,” Silman wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, adding that she could no longer stand to see those unspecified values harmed as a member of the coalition.

She urged him “to acknowledge the truth: we tried. The time has come to think of a new course. To try to form a nationalist, Jewish, Zionist government.”

Her decision raises the possibility of new parliamentary elections, less than a year after the government took office. While Bennett’s government remains in power, it is now hamstrung in the 120-seat parliament and will likely struggle to function.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted Wednesday evening that he had spoken to Bennett “and we will work and try to preserve the government.”

Bennett’s coalition of eight political parties, ranging from Islamists to hard-line nationalists and dovish liberals, now holds 60 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

The coalition came together last June, bound by little more than a shared opposition to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Despite the differences among the coalition, it has managed to pass a budget, navigate the coronavirus pandemic and strengthen relations with both the Biden administration and Israel’s Arab allies. Although Bennett has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians, he has tried to take steps to improve living conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and contain tensions following a series of Palestinian attacks that killed 11 Israelis.

But some members of Bennett’s Yamina party, which promotes a religious, nationalist agenda, have been uncomfortable with the union with Islamist and liberal parties since the government’s inception in June. One party member broke ranks rather than be part of it. Silman followed suit on Wednesday.

Israeli media reported that Bennett sought to rally members of his party at a meeting on Wednesday, saying other parties in the coalition remain onboard.

Earlier in the week, Silman feuded with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the dovish and secular Meretz Party, over his determination that hospitals uphold the law and not bar people from bringing bread in during Passover.

The Knesset is currently in recess, and it remains unclear if the opposition will now have enough support to hold a no-confidence vote and send Israelis to the polls for the fifth time in just over three years.

To topple the government, opposition lawmakers would need to secure 61 votes in favor of dissolving parliament — or as many in favor of the formation of an alternate governing coalition.

Netanyahu, who led Israel for the previous 12 years, has been working as opposition leader to unravel the coalition by trying to lure members of Bennett’s party. Netanyahu and other opposition politicians called on other members to follow Silman in order to achieve that aim.

“To friends still sitting in this coalition, I say: come home,” Netanyahu said. “Join Idit Silman, join us, and together we will return Israel to the track of success, achievement, security and peace.”

While the Passover dispute had garnered headlines in recent days, Israeli media say Silman had been planning to leave the coalition for a while.

The Israeli daily Haaretz said Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a veteran politician, had warned Bennett last Thursday that he feared Silman was on the way out. The report said that Silman’s husband helped plot her exit with Betzalel Smotrich, a hard-line ultranationalist opposition figure. In the “properties” section of Wednesday’s resignation letter, Smotrich’s name appeared as the author.

Israel has held four elections in two years in a protracted political crisis over Netanyahu’s fitness to rule while on trial for corruption. The deadlocked elections were finally broken in June, when Bennett and his allies ousted Netanyahu by cobbling together a coalition of unlikely allies.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said that while Silman’s departure didn’t bring down the government, it does bring the country “back to political crisis mode.”

“Bennett’s government loses its majority in parliament and its degree of freedom to maneuver, to pass legislation, to gain majority for its decisions,” Plesner said.