Today, the Israeli governing coalition’s chairwoman, Yamina MK Idit Silman, announced that she could no longer remain in a coalition that was, in her words, damaging Israel’s Jewish character, and that she was going to work to build a new right-wing government. Silman’s defection means that the razor-thin one-seat majority that the coalition enjoyed is now gone, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has lost his Knesset majority and can now only count on 60 votes. While many assume that this means the imminent return of Binyamin Netanyahu to the premiership that he held uninterrupted for a dozen years before the formation of the Bennett government nine months ago, things are actually a lot more complicated than they seem at first glance.
The fact that the coalition no longer has a Knesset majority does not mean that the government automatically falls. There are two ways to engineer the replacement of the government. One is for 61 or more MKs to vote to dissolve the government and go to new elections. The other is for 61 or more MKs to vote to replace this government with a new government. Neither of these is an easy scenario to envision coming together without weeks, and maybe months, of wrangling, since there are real obstacles in the path of both.
Even if Netanyahu is able to convince another defector from Yamina to leave the coalition and provide him with 61 potential votes to bring down the government, very few of his potential targets actually want to go to new elections. The obvious places to go hunting for more disaffected coalition members like Silman are Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, but those are also the two parties who are the most wary of new elections. Polls over the past nine months consistently show that New Hope is unlikely to make the Knesset threshold in another election, so going to new elections carries enormous risk for any New Hope MK who wants to maintain a Knesset seat. Yamina will make it into the next Knesset but likely having lost a seat or two, so that makes going to new elections a dicey proposition.
The other big variable hanging above all of this is that when Yair Lapid negotiated the coalition agreement with Bennett that allowed this government to form with a prime ministerial rotation between the two men, he did something under the radar that was very clever. Knowing that there was a decent chance right-wing MKs would bring down the government before the premiership passed to him, and having had a front row seat to two plus years of political deadlock and four successive elections, Lapid got Bennett to agree that he would take over as interim prime minister in the period before elections if the government was brought down by defections from Bennett’s side of the coalition. That means that if 61 MKs vote to go to elections hoping to construct a uniformly right-wing government, they will have to wage their campaign and then fashion together a new coalition while Lapid is serving as prime minister. If, as happened repeatedly during the two years of ongoing elections, Netanyahu’s polarizing presence means a government cannot be formed and Israel goes to elections again, Lapid remains prime minister until he is actively replaced. Not only will this give Lapid and his Yesh Atid party an electoral boost, it means that the Israeli right will have to swallow policies while Lapid is in power that they will vehemently oppose. It provides another reason for MKs who want to see this government fall to think twice before voting to go to new elections.
The other scenario is also difficult. Netanyahu controls 52 seats in the Knesset between Likud, the Kahanist Religious Zionism party, and the Haredi parties Shas and UTJ. That leaves him nine votes short of being able to form a new government without elections, and the reasons that MKs from Yamina and New Hope did not want to form a uniformly right-wing coalition with Netanyahu at its head have not gone away. Netanyahu is still in the midst of his corruption trial, he has not rebuilt any of the bridges that he burned with former Likudniks like Sa’ar and Ze’ev Elkin, and nobody trusts him at all. This adds up to the conclusion that if Netanyahu wants to replace the Bennett-Lapid government without an election, he will have to take a backseat and allow someone else to be prime minister, and that is where Benny Gantz comes in.
Gantz has been chafing at the bit and feuding with Bennett, and at other times with Lapid, ostensibly over policy but more likely for political reasons. He believes that he should be prime minister and that he can be the next Bennett in terms of controlling a bloc of seats that he can throw to either side in return for going first in a prime ministerial rotation. If Netanyahu approached Gantz and offered him the first run as prime minister if he joins a Likud coalition and thereby avoids new elections, Gantz will have to decide whether he is willing to trust Netanyahu yet again after being undermined at every turn the last time he signed an agreement with Netanyahu. Many have identified Gantz as the current coalition’s weak link from the day the government was sworn in, and have assumed that he is biding his time and would bolt as soon as it was politically expedient. That time may have arrived, though Netanyahu has not done himself any favors in trying to win Gantz over again in light of how their first political marriage ended.
Given the various challenges to forming a new government with or without elections, the most likely scenario may be that the current government limps along for a year, unable to pass anything and without any options, and then falls next March when it is required to approve a new budget and its inability to do so automatically triggers elections. It is also possible that Bennett will work furiously over the next few days to convince Silman to come back—after all, the ostensible reason that she left was a dispute over whether hametz (leavened grain products) will be allowed in hospitals over Passover, which does not at face value seem like the stuff that brings down governments, though stranger things have happened in Israeli politics. And there are no doubt wilder scenarios being cooked up too, from attracting Likud defectors going in the opposite direction to jettisoning the secular Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz parties and bringing in the Haredi ones.
However this ends up resolved, it won’t be done in a matter of days and it does not automatically mean Netanyahu’s restoration. It means that the nine-month reprieve during which the Israeli political system looked relatively stable and like it was working is over, and we are entering the next period of what has turned into chronic chaos.