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On Wednesday morning, Israel was rocked by a revolt that appeared to reshuffle its political map. A single lawmaker from the governing coalition, Idit Silman, dramatically announced that she would be defecting to the opposition. Why does this move by someone most people have never heard of matter? It’s math. The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, has 120 seats. With Silman’s switch, it is now split 60–60 between coalition and opposition. The anti-Netanyahu government that took office in June 2021 no longer has a majority.
Is this the end of the new Israeli government? Will Netanyahu return to power? How exactly did this happen, and what comes next? Here are five insights that help untangle these questions and explain where Israel is heading.
1. It’s always the ones you most suspect. Silman served as the coalition’s whip, and it might seem shocking that she would quit the government. But the reason Silman received such a plum position in the first place was precisely because she was seen as more likely to defect if she wasn’t placated. Her entire political party, Yamina, has been the weakest link in Israel’s incredibly diverse coalition since day one. Unseating Netanyahu required uniting an array of unlikely allies, including Arabs, Jews, leftists, and the nationalists of Yamina. This was a particularly hard sell to the latter group, which largely supported Netanyahu’s policies, at least when they weren’t pushing him to be more right-wing. To get Yamina to go along, then-opposition leader Yair Lapid gave their leader, Naftali Bennett, the prime ministership—even though he had only 7 seats to Lapid’s 17. While this successfully cemented the coalition, it did not alleviate the pressure on the Yamina lawmakers from the political right, which branded them as traitors and subjected them and their families to vicious abuse. It got so bad that in January, Silman’s own husband began publicly denouncing the government she was running in the media. Ultimately, it was this treatment that proved too much for her. After ginning up various pretextual conflicts and telegraphing her intention to quit, she finally did. She didn’t even bother to inform Bennett in advance—he found out from the morning news.
2. The government beats Bibi, by a score of 60–60. The current Israeli coalition can’t be toppled from outside without a no-confidence measure in parliament, which requires 61 votes. Technically, the opposition has 60, requiring Netanyahu to pry loose just one more defector, but it’s not as simple as it looks. That’s because the 60 opposition seats include 6 from the predominantly Arab Joint List party, a motley crew of leftists and nationalists who have no intention of helping Netanyahu regain power. So he really needs 7 more defectors to get to 61. Barring a switch of an entire party or faction from coalition to opposition, or an about-face by the Joint List, this is unlikely.
3. New elections, old problems. Even if Netanyahu mustered those 61 votes to unseat the current coalition, he’d only regain his position if he could assemble another coalition with 61 seats, something he failed to do after Israel’s last four elections. Otherwise, the country would head to its fifth election in three years, which polls indicate would result in a similar deadlock as the prior ones. All of this means that stasis is more likely than it looks. Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak all governed with fewer than 60 seats. Sharon did it for over a year. The current coalition has already passed a multi-year budget, so without any other major shocks, it could totter along until March 2023, when it is required to pass another one or dissolve. It would be unable to pass legislation with its own votes, but it would be able to govern the country and run its various ministries, looking for an edge and a return to full power.
4. The longest Passover. Israel’s Knesset is already in recess for the coming Passover holiday, and will only reconvene on May 9. This means that whatever machinations unfold as a result of Silman’s defection will happen slowly. The holiday break will be spent by Netanyahu feverishly attempting to engineer a new parliamentary majority, and Bennett and Lapid just as feverishly working to shore up their coalition. But we won’t really know how this will play out until parliament is back in session and votes can actually take place.
5. Israel’s fragile experiment in Jewish-Arab partnership hangs in the balance. Too often lost in all the political math is the impact this math has on the lives of real people. Over the last three weeks, Israel has experienced four terrorist attacks that have left 14 dead. One of these transpired last night in Tel Aviv, when a Palestinian gunman from the West Bank opened fire on a crowded bar, killing three and wounding many others. In response to this deadly wave of terrorism, Netanyahu and his allies have collectively demonized Arabs in Israel, while the current government—which contains an Arab party—has sought to project a united Jewish-Arab front against violent extremism. As I’ve written, these are two very different visions for Israel’s future. All of which is to say: The downstream effects of Silman’s move will be felt by far more people than just the politicians.
If Israeli history—and the last few years of it in particular—has taught us anything, it’s that predicting the course of the country’s future is a fool’s errand. Exactly no one would have forecast that Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, would be displaced by an alliance of Arabs and Jews, settlers and leftists. For the moment, Israel’s current government has taken a body blow, but there are more rounds left in the fight.
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