Israel has been plunged into a political crisis that could lead to months of paralysis and pave the way for the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the premiership.
A key member of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party said on Wednesday that she was quitting his coalition government – a surprise move that suddenly leaves him without a parliamentary majority.
Idit Silman’s announcement left Bennett’s coalition, an alliance of parties ranging from the Jewish right and Israeli leftists to a Palestinian party, with 60 seats, the same as the opposition.
Although Silman’s defection does not mean the fall of the coalition, it raises the spectre of a potential return to office by Netanyahu less than a year after he lost the premiership to Bennett.
“Key values in my worldview are inconsistent with current reality,” Silman wrote in a letter to Bennett, adding she could no longer stand to see those unspecified “values” harmed as a member of the coalition.
She urged him “to acknowledge the truth: we tried. The time has come to think of a new course. To try to form a nationalist, Jewish, Zionist government”.
On Monday, Silman lashed out at Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz after he instructed hospitals to allow leavened bread products onto their premises during the upcoming Passover holiday, in line with a recent supreme court ruling reversing years of prohibition.
Jewish tradition bars leavened bread from the public domain during Passover.
Some Palestine-Israel observers said Bennett’s loss of majority in the Knesset proved the coalition was not right wing enough for many of its members.
Naftali Bennett is a prime minister without a party.
The reason he has no party is because he heads a government that is not right-wing enough for his party members.
— Mairav Zonszein מרב זונשיין (@MairavZ) April 6, 2022
“This has never been a coalition that is good to Palestinians; to the contrary,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiations team.
“This government has made sure to expand settlements and has pushed for the demolition of more Palestinian homes than any other government. It has also passed a racist law that openly declares that Israel wishes to ensure a Jewish demographic majority.
“That said, with the coalition’s demise, we will see Bennett veer even further to the right in order to get as many votes as possible in the Knesset. We will see more settlements, more home demolitions and even more racist legislation as a means to appease the fascist right,” Buttu told Al Jazeera.
Bennett’s coalition may continue ruling with 60 seats, although with difficulty passing new legislation.
If another member of the coalition defects, however, the Knesset could hold a vote of no confidence and lead Israel back to the polls for a fifth parliamentary election in four years.
In a formal resignation letter addressed to Bennett, Silman said: “We must admit that we tried.”
There was no immediate comment from Bennett, whose Yamina party has suffered numerous splits and defections since its inception in 2019.
Yamina now holds just five of parliament’s 120 seats.
Following the announcement, Silman was embraced by the same right-wing politicians who had relentlessly attacked her since she followed Bennett into the governing coalition last year, reneging on campaign promises.
“Idit, you’re proof that what guides you is the concern for the Jewish identity of Israel, the concern for the land of Israel, and I welcome you back home to the national camp,” opposition leader Netanyahu said in a video recording.
“To friends still sitting in this coalition, I say: come home,” Netanyahu said.
“Join Idit Silman, join us, and together we will return Israel to the track of success, achievement, security and peace.”
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was in office from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 until June, had pledged to play the role of spoiler against Bennett’s government, which brought an end to his hold on power.
At a special session of the Knesset, which is currently in recess, Netanyahu said: “There is a weak and limp government in Israel today. Its days are numbered.”
The Knesset will reconvene on May 8 to resume its legislative work.
“I won’t name any names, but there will be more defectors,” Miki Zohar of Netanyahu’s Likud party told Kan public radio. “We’re in talks with more than two lawmakers who are considering coming to us.”
To form a coalition of his own without new elections, Netanyahu would need the support of at least 61 lawmakers.
Currently, he falls well short of that threshold, and does not command the support of all 60 opposition MPs. The six lawmakers of the Arab-led Joint List are fierce opponents of the former premier.