Breadcrumbs that could bring down a government
It is not often that a government falls over a few crumbs. But that is exactly what could happen to Israel’s coalition government, which assumed power less than a year ago. Idit Silman, the government’s Leader of the Coalition (parliamentary whip) and a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party, announced her resignation from the party because, she argued, a ruling by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz “harmed Jewish identity in Israel.” Bennett apparently learned of her decision from media reports.
The ruling in question was that patients and visitors could bring food that was not deemed kosher for Passover into hospitals during the holiday, which begins next week. Bread and other foods that contain yeast, as well as — for Ashkenazic Jews — legumes, are all prohibited on Passover; even breadcrumbs are meant to be done away with before the onset of the holiday.
Horowitz is a member of the left-wing, secularist Meretz Party. The Yamina Party to which Silman, who is religiously traditional, belonged until this week, is right-wing and religiously oriented. Yet Horowitz was not acting on his own. The Israeli high court had ruled previously along the lines of Horowitz’s decision.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has been angling to return to his office ever since he was ousted in June 2021, when he failed to form a government after the March elections — congratulated Silman on her defection. It has been reported widely that she will join Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Moreover, Netanyahu allegedly has offered her the Ministry of Health, which presumably would then ban the presence of non-kosher foods for Passover in hospitals.
Netanyahu is under indictment for alleged corruption. Were he to return to the prime ministership at the head of a majority coalition in the Israeli Knesset (parliament), he could seek legislation that would shield him from the court’s jurisdiction. An alliance with Silman could bring him closer to that objective.
The collapse of the Bennett-led government would mark the end of a remarkable development, in which right-wing parties joined a ruling coalition not only with their left-oriented counterparts, but also with the Islamist Ra’am Party, the first Israeli Arab party ever to join an Israeli government. Moreover, Issawi Frej, an Israeli Arab member of the Meretz Party, serves in the government as minister for regional cooperation; his portfolio, therefore, includes working with the six Arab states that have relations with Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s return to power certainly would bring an end to any Israeli Arab participation in the government. Moreover, it would seriously complicate, if not undermine, Israel’s relationship with the United States. In contrast to Bennett, who has taken a low-key approach to opposing the renewal of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), Netanyahu long has been a vocal opponent of the deal and has not hesitated to lecture its supporters publicly, including President Barack Obama when they met in the Oval Office in 2011 and then-Vice President Joe Biden on a number of subsequent occasions.
Bennett also has tried to heal Israel’s rift with the Democratic Party that resulted from Netanyahu’s unabashed alignment with the Republicans in general and with Donald Trump in particular. Netanyahu’s return to office would energize the growing element on the Democratic left that advocates loosening Washington’s close ties with Jerusalem; views Israel as an oppressive occupying power on the West Bank; and is less than enthusiastic about Israel’s growing ties with the Gulf States.
Silman’s former colleagues are pleading with her to return to the fold, and while she has publicly denied making any deal with Netanyahu, Israel’s aggressive investigative media have dismissed her denials. In any event, Silman’s defection would not necessarily guarantee Netanyahu’s return to power. While he is certain to receive the support of the ultra-Orthodox religious parties that have been frozen out of the Bennett government, he would still need additional votes from some of the smaller parties to obtain a parliamentary majority.
Nevertheless, even the possibility that Netanyahu could return to office so soon after his ouster has upended Israeli politics — just when it seemed that the Bennett government was settling into office and restoring some political sanity to a country that had gone to the polls four times between 2019 and 2021. And all over a few breadcrumbs.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.