By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Recently, there were two major developments that showcased the fragility of the current Israeli government. As a result, many pundits are forecasting another election by the end of the year.
First, there was a surprise announcement by left-wing Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of her intention to resign from the political coalition in the Knesset, the unicameral parliament of Israel, which she later retracted. Second, Rinawie Zoabi’s announcement was soon followed by Blue and White party member Michael Biton’s statement that he will limit his relationship with the coalition.
Rinawie Zoabi and Pressure from the Left
Rinawie Zoabi is a Knesset member from the left-wing party Meretz. Her announcement last week took everybody by surprise.
But in hindsight, Rinawie Zoabi’s statement underlines the fragility of the coalition and the many pitfalls that will surely come in the future. Knesset is an amalgamation of parties from the right and the left, and any move that seems to be too far in either direction is too much for this ideologically diverse coalition.
Rinawie Zoabi clearly feels that she is not being given enough respect and that her initiatives concerning the Arab community in Israel are ignored in favor of Mansour Abbas, the leading Islamist member of the coalition. Since there are only 60 coalition members out of 120 in the Knesset, the resignation of any one member can derail the coalition and potentially the Israeli government.
According to a Times of Israel article, Rinawie Zoabi said, “Unfortunately, in recent months, out of narrow political considerations, the leaders of the coalition have chosen to preserve and strengthen its right-wing flank.”
After a few days, however, Rinawie Zoabi changed her mind due to the actions of her own party members, Mansour Abbas and current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (who is scheduled to take office as prime minister next year in August if the government survives). They made promises to allocate funds to projects in Arab communities in Israel, ensuring that the coalition survived.
The Next Pitfall for Knesset in Israel
After Rinawie Zoabi’s statement, it did not take long for another potential problem to arise. This one was also somewhat unexpected.
Blue and White’s Michael Biton is focusing on social justice issues. Recently, Biton declared, “I won’t vote with the coalition except on no-confidence votes, so it won’t become political.”
Why did Biton do that, you might ask? The reason is public transportation prices.
In Israel, there is a well-developed public transportation system that is very important to lower-income citizens. Biton criticized Labor party Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer of “hurting the weak.” Michaeli has proposed to raise public transportation ticket prices, and Biton has called for the Agricultural Ministry to stop its reforms until farmers have a discussion with the Agricultural Ministry.
Biton added: “Until then, I won’t vote in the plenum. Maybe later I’ll even vote against. What hurts me is the harm to the poor. We relinquished our honor.”
Biton has made clear that he will not bring the government down. However, it is interesting that his party leader, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz and former Prime Minister candidate in the last election, was not quick to meet with him and make sure things are calm. It is likely that there are forces at work in the background.
Is Netanyahu Planning a Comeback?
There have been constant rumors in the Hebrew press in Israel that the right-wing Likud party is always trying to form a new government. While there are many parliament members who will not join another Netanyahu government, they will join Likud – Netanyahu’s party – if another member assumes Likud leadership.
While Netanyahu could start discussing the possibility of someone else as Likud Chairman, his end game is to have a rotation government where he will be the second Prime Minister. Netanyahu could support a Likud with another leader, knowing full well he will not retire and will win any internal primaries in the Likud.
However, this situation is not healthy from a governance point of view. David Horovitz, The Times of Israel editor, noted: “To some degree, the lurch from crisis to political crisis has been going on for the past three years, since Israel’s governance entered its ongoing semi-paralysis in which no leader has been able to build a genuinely stable coalition.”
“The reasons for this have been endlessly documented, including by this writer; prominent among them is the fact that there are two irreconcilable majorities in the Knesset — a right-wing ideological majority, and a personal anti-Netanyahu majority. The longer this dysfunctionality persists, however, the more dangerous for Israel.
“Our government strains to govern. Our opposition is unremittingly hostile — as opposed to constructively and pointedly critical in areas where criticism is genuinely essential. Meantime, the challenges, external and internal, mount up.”
The Netanyahu corruption trial that will most likely last at least another year is still going on, and there are many commentators that suggest the trial is going well for Netanyahu. The prosecution has made several grave errors, and the defense team was able to turn a major prosecution witness’s testimony upside down and debunking major claims.
Is that enough for Netanyahu to be acquitted? It’s too early to tell, but the trial’s activities so far seem to put Netanyahu in a better position with the public.
Netanyahu is a veteran politician who is over 70 years old. He is not ready to finish his political career.
If the prosecution will not bring a deal to the table – a deal that will give up on a guilty plea in exchange for Netanyahu’s political retirement – I don’t think we will see the last of him. Netanyahu continues to capture the imagination of his supporters and – very much like former president Donald Trump – identifies himself with the good of the country.