The Bennett Coalition Crisis in Israel

The abrupt resignation on April 6 of Idit Silman, a key member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party and de facto whip for the Bennett-Lapid coalition in the Knesset, roiled that government and deprived it of its thin, one-vote parliamentary majority in the chamber. The shock resignation raised serious doubts about the government’s ability to conduct significant legislative business in the immediate future and resuscitated the specter of a fresh round of parliamentary elections—the fifth such poll in the past three years. Many questions have been raised in Israel and beyond about the political context, the motives, and the domestic and regional implications of the resignation.

Political Motive and Blame

What prompted the Silman resignation were pure unadulterated ideological differences inherent to the makeup of the current coalition arrangement that were glossed over by its eight diverse partners in order to get rid of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Silman was not shy about revealing her rationale for quitting the coalition at this critical juncture in Israeli politics. Describing her departure, the right-wing religious nationalist legislator was quite straightforward in stating to the Jerusalem Post that “the decision to part ways with the current coalition was based on my values and is, therefore, final.” She went further by calling on her colleagues within the coalition and the Yamina faction to follow suit in order “to create a Zionist and nationalist government within the existing Knesset.” In other words, Silman does not deem the current Bennett government as Zionist, Jewish, or nationalist enough.

Silman’s resignation was not surprising at all to keen observers of Israeli politics who were fully aware of the ideological fault lines in the Bennett-Lapid agreement.

Therefore, Silman’s resignation was not surprising at all to keen observers of Israeli politics who were fully aware of the ideological fault lines in the Bennett-Lapid agreement reached on June 2, 2021, and were not deceived by the public relations stunt of depicting the new coalition as the “change government.” The fragile governing coalition, bringing together under the same big political tent strange bedfellows ranging from adherents to extreme Jewish nationalism with allegedly Islamist anti-Zionist militants, and so-called “progressive” Zionists, has collapsed under the weight of its own internal and irreconcilable contradictions. What Silman’s departure from Yamina produced is a walk-through pet door in the party gate, wide enough for the proverbial chickens to come home to roost. Her highly publicized week-long pre-resignation clash with the health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, over the introduction of chametz (food products with leavening agents) in Israeli hospitals was the catalyst and not the actual cause of this political crisis. In the final analysis for Silman, as Uri Misgav opined on April 7, it was “Judaism versus Israeliness,” her concept of “Israel’s Jewish character” was not being advanced or secured by this fractious coalition.

Naftali Bennett and his inner circle quickly went into damage control mode to deflect full blame for the Silman resignation and to stabilize both Yamina and the overall coalition against the possibility of a domino effect from materializing. Unsurprisingly, they initially ignored their own failure at maintaining internal loyalty and party discipline and, instead, blamed their political archfoe Netanyahu for the Silman defection and focused immediately on stopping the hemorrhage by preventing additional resignations. The prime minister publicly accused his Likud predecessor and his Religious Zionist allies of pressuring Silman, threatening her family, and offering her political incentives to defect to the Netanyahu-led opposition. Netanyahu quickly retaliated by praising Silman for making “the right decision,” and welcoming her “home to the real right, to the national camp.” The former prime minister declared that the governing coalition days are numbered and proceeded to antagonize and mock the Bennett camp by calling on “other lawmakers to quit the government,” as Silman did. “We are waiting for you, we will embrace you,” Netanyahu told Knesset members.

Likely Scenarios

Will the Silman resignation necessarily lead to the collapse of the Bennett government? What are the likely scenarios expected in Israel after this bombshell resignation?

coalition partners appear determined to whither the crisis and avoid creating an opportunity for Netanyahu to exploit and return for a sixth term as prime minister.

Israeli coalition politics has always been chaotic and unwieldy. The Silman affair and its anticipated political fallout are a case in point. The resignation might not immediately lead to the demise of the Bennett government, the dissolution of the Knesset, or the rush to new elections. At this point, coalition partners appear determined to whither the crisis and avoid creating an opportunity for Netanyahu to exploit and return for a sixth term as prime minister. Clearly, Bennett has “lost control of his own party,” as Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote in Haaretz on April 7; however, neither Bennett nor his coalition partners seem prone to give up without a political fight if they retain some realistic options of remaining in power. Political analysts in Israel and beyond have suggested several potential scenarios that could unfold over the next few months. Immediately after the Silman resignation, the Jerusalem Post suggested four possible scenarios that could happen next, although it is worth noting that they are not mutually exclusive, with many combinations thereof possible:

Domino effect: This scenario refers to the possibility that other members of the coalition would follow Silman’s lead and resign, consequently paralyzing the Bennett government, dissolving the Knesset, and leading to new elections. Knesset members Amichai Chikli, Ayelet Shaked, and Nir Orbach, among others, are often mentioned as potential resignees.

Gantz jumps ship: This centers around Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has been an unhappy fellow traveler within the coalition, itching for the right moment to dash toward the prime minister’s seat on his own terms before Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid gets it according to the existing rotation agreement.

A Netanyahu comeback: The former Likud prime minister, who is facing serious charges of corruption in Israeli courts, would love nothing better than forming a new coalition with any defectors from the Bennett camp to use as a segue to restore his shattered political career and return to center stage.

Limping to the finish line: This is the most likely and welcome scenario for both Bennett and Lapid. They realize that they will be leading a lame duck government for the balance of their term, but they will maintain their leadership positions as they continue to limp to the finish line, whether it comes in 2023 or 2025.

Palestinian Reactions

Regardless of which scenario ends up materializing over the next few weeks, the Bennett governance crisis is already presenting serious political challenges for Palestinians inside Israel and the 1967 occupied territories. For the leadership in Ramallah and Gaza, the potential collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition and the possibility of a sixth Israeli election are not seen as promising opportunities for change. After all, the Bennett government has adopted a policy of total paralysis vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue that is as rejectionist as the position of the previous Likud-led government, if not worse. Therefore, the choice between Bennett and Netanyahu, which represents an exciting choice for right-wing elements in Israel, is not a welcome option in Ramallah. It is generally perceived as the choice between the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of Israeli politics. This attitude has been strengthened over the past year by Bennett’s insistence on refusing to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, rejecting the Palestine Liberation Organization-Palestinian Authority as a peace partner, and characterizing the notion of Palestinian statehood as a “terrible mistake,” from an Israeli perspective.

The Bennett governance crisis is already presenting serious political challenges for Palestinians inside Israel and the 1967 occupied territories.

The situation inside Israel is quite more complicated for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who constitute about twenty-one percent of the population. Despite their general support for the two-state solution, including the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, these Palestinians are quite divided over the fate of the Bennett government. For one, the governing coalition led by Bennett enjoys the support within the Knesset of the Ra’am faction, an Islamist political party known as the United Arab List, which is affiliated with the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement (Muslim Brotherhood) inside Israel. Its leader Mansour Abbas told Rina Matsliah on Channel 12 that he “will not allow the dissolution of this government, even if I receive a commitment from Netanyahu to be in his coalition after the election.” Abbas and his supporters claim that up to 68 percent of Palestinians in Israel approve of Palestinian participation in the current government, as Ra’am has done.

Although Mansour Abbas’ claims seem self-serving and exaggerated, according to the same survey by Haifa University, the remaining 32 percent of the Palestinian public in Israel are not supportive of the Bennett government and view it as the most racist coalition in Israel’s history. Other Palestinian Knesset members refused to join the coalition and do not mind seeing it collapse to expose its discriminatory policies. Indeed, members of the rival Joint Arab List, including Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi, Aida Touma-Sliman, and Sami Abu Shahadeh have urged Abbas and his Ra’am colleagues to pull out of the coalition and stop legitimizing its anti-Palestinian policies.