Israel’s political earthquake – a guide for the perplexed

Answering your questions about the new Knesset crisis.

By Pesach Benson, World Israel News

On Wednesday, MK Idit Silman rocked Israeli politics with the announcement that she’s quitting the government and joining the opposition. The governing coalition’s one-seat majority is gone.

Her defection raises a lot of uncertainty and plenty of questions.

Why? Why now? Is Israel doomed to perpetual paralysis? Will there be an early election? And where does Israel go from here?

Let’s unpack the questions one at a time.

So, why did Silman defect to the opposition?

Before digging into that answer, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the coalition that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid put together wasn’t supposed to last this long. Eight parties with wildly diverging interests united against Benjamin Netanyahu with a mere one-seat majority.

It was bound to be rocky and expected to collapse.

While we got distracted by forging ties with Abraham Accords partners, fretted over Iran and COVID, then watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine, we forgot that the coalition calculus had not really changed. The country is still divided.

Face it, if elections were held today, there’d be minor shifts in the distribution of seats, but the big picture is that neither the right nor the center-left camps would command a clear majority.

From the moment the Bennett-Lapid government was sworn in, Likud began working to lure MKs across the aisle. No doubt, the governing coalition made overtures to various opposition MKs as well. But that’s politics.

I hear that. But why Silman, and why now?

The Yamina party, which Bennett leads, continues to take flak from the right for sitting in a government with Arabs, with Labor and with far-left Meretz. Although Bennett is prime minister, the party has only seven seats. Support is shrinking, and so is the number of Knesset seats it would get if elections were held today.

So it’s not difficult to imagine that the defector would come from the right-wing Yamina party.

Which brings us to Silman, a 41-year-old freshman lawmaker from Rehovot. Before entering politics, she worked in various management positions for Clalit Health Services, Israel’s largest health-maintenance organization.

She’s not a high-profile MK, and at number seven on the Yamina list, Silman’s Knesset seat is far from safe if elections were held today.

She has had sharp ideological disagreements with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz over issues such as policy changes on abortion.

Ostensibly, Silman quit because of a directive Horowitz issued to hospitals to allow visitors to bring in chametz or leavened bread, during the upcoming Passover holiday. Even if the chametz issue was Silman’s last straw, the defection didn’t come out of the blue.

Silman’s husband, Shmulik, was overt about it on Tuesday. He told the Galei Israel radio station, “If Idit returns home,” referring to the right-wing bloc, “she would grab a great position at the Health Ministry.”

“Everything’s good. Nothing has happened, and it’s not the end of the world,” he added.

Hebrew media reports also allege that her resignation letter was written with the help of — or possibly by — Religious Zionism party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich.

What does this mean for Israeli lawmaking?

The Knesset is in recess for Passover, and the full plenum isn’t scheduled to meet until May 9. So there’s plenty of time for more political maneuvering. Don’t expect Bennett or Netanyahu to reveal their cards before the Knesset reconvenes.

If the split remains at 60-60, the government will be unable to pass any legislation without opposition support.

Will there be early elections?

Not necessarily, but Silman has raised that likelihood. To force new elections, the opposition still needs to lure one more MK across the aisle.

According to the rotational agreement between Bennett and Lapid, if the government collapses before the end of Bennett’s term as prime minister, Lapid becomes prime minister of the caretaker government.

If Bennett and Lapid somehow keep their coalition intact, Israel will not go to elections until November 2025.