By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Israel is part and parcel of the Middle East, but its internal politics are still perplexing even against the backdrop of this volatile region. The current Israeli government is once again on the brink of dissolving.
Yet again, the fragile coalition of Israel’s political parties is on the cusp of fragmenting, and a fifth election within less than three years is an option. Why do these new elections keep happening, and who wants them to happen?
Why Is the Israeli Coalition in Danger?
If it feels that Israel has gone through this situation before, it has. Ten months ago, I wrote that there is a chance that there will be yet another election in Israel in 2022.
The coalition of Israeli political parties had a very thin margin; it was built of 61 Knesset members and the Israeli parliament has 120 members. This coalition was based on one idea: to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister.
The coalition brought together an unusual amalgamation of partners. There were right-wing parties, such as Yamina and Tikvah Hadasha, alongside an Islamist political party with ideological connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. It also brought together religious members with staunch secularists.
The Causes of Political Friction
The last few months have seen several causes of political friction. One cause had to do with the rising tension with Palestinians during the month of Ramadan. The other concerned a decision of Israel’s left-wing, secularist Health Minister to reverse a ban on unleavened bread.
In April, Jews traditionally celebrate Passover. This holiday commemorates the exodus from Egypt and a sacrifice would be brought to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, during biblical times.
In recent years, some Jews have gone to Temple Mount and prayed for it to return to Jewish control. This attitude has caused major tensions with the Muslim authorities that control Temple Mount and the mosques on it.
The Islamist Ra’am party in the Israeli coalition has made clear that it might leave the coalition if Jews are permitted to go to Temple Mount during the holy month of Ramadan. Ra’am party chairman MK Walid Taha told Israeli media that the coalition is apparently heading towards collapse.
According to the Times of Israel, Taha observed, “We thought this government would behave differently,” a reference to Jews ascending to Temple Mount as the cause of the latest violence. He described these actions as the government allowing “a few hundred fascists” to create trouble.
Another element of the Passover holiday has destabilized the coalition from another direction. During Passover, the Hebrew Bible mandates that only matzo – unleavened bread – can be eaten by Jews. Leavened bread, known as chametz in Hebrew, is not consumed because it is considered not kosher. About 70% of Israeli Jews observe the Passover holiday and in state-run kitchens — such as in the military or hospitals — all food is kosher.
To maintain the kosher status, hospitals and military officials do not allow chametz to be introduced onto their premises to ensure that it is not mixed with kosher food. Secularist organizations, however, have been demanding this ordinance be canceled based on freedom of religion.
The decision of Israel’s health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, to cancel this ban on leavened bread caused the chairwoman of the coalition, Idit Silman from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yakima party, to leave the coalition. She declared that she could not be a part of a government that tramples Jewish tradition.
Consequently, Yakima now has only 60 members. After her decision, Silman told her associates about Bennett, saying, “He is attempting to portray me as a weak and stressed woman who cannot stand the pressure, and trying to convey that the move was not ideological and did not stem from a solid position.
“Would he also express himself in this way about a man? It is difficult for them to accept that ideologically they are flawed and that they have a problem.”
The Future of Government Elections in Israel
With no majority to the government or its opposition, there is no clear-cut way to vote. However, it will only take one person to defect from a political party and cause yet another election. The big player who seeks reelection is Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu wants to see how close he is to returning to the position of Prime Minister. He will attempt to get any of the right-wing members to defect; he got Silman to join him by promising her a place in the Likud, his party in the next election. He also promised Silman that if he becomes the next Prime Minister, she will be appointed Minister of Health.
Will we see another election soon in Israel? It is plausible. When the only basis for the coalition is the opposition for Netanyahu, there is little to keep it together.
The fact that Yair Lapid, the Foreign Affairs Minister, is scheduled to be appointed Prime Minister next year instead of Naftali Bennett also has the potential to incentivize defection. Lapid is considered a left-winger and is seen by many people as not talented enough to assume the position of Prime Minister.
In the Middle East, The Only Constant Is Change
The Middle East is not a stable place; it seems that the only stable thing in the region is constant change. The U.S. role in this situation should also be considered. After the collapse of Afghanistan and the rumors that Iran will get a favorable deal from the White House concerning its nuclear agreement, there are many in Israel and the Middle East who are seeing the logic behind Netanyahu’s rhetoric and tactics.
The last piece of the puzzle is the Netanyahu trial, which seems to be going well for him so far. But if Netanyahu finds himself convicted even for lesser charges, he will be barred from continuing his political career.