Vulnerable Israeli government braces for chill as Knesset winter season begins

“Hold on for a few more weeks. Don’t pick fights on Twitter. It is not worth it. If you shake up the coalition now, the people of Israel will not forgive you, and your constituents will not forgive you.” That was Secretary of State Yair Lapid’s strong message to coalition members on October 4, about an hour before the start of the Knesset winter session.

Lapid, who is also deputy prime minister, made these comments during a meeting of his Yesh Atid faction. He was referring, among other things, to a Twitter feud between Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and the Meretz faction.

It all started with the 3 October meeting between ministers of Meretz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. According to media reports, at the meeting, Abbas expressed a desire to meet Shaked, one of the most right-wing members of the coalition, and a person particularly close to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. In response to Shaked tweeted almost immediately: “It won’t happen. I will not meet a holocaust denier accusing Israel Defense Forces soldiers in The Hague [ICC] and pays murderers of Jews.”

Shaked could have ignored the visit to Ramallah, of course, as could Bennett. Despite the damage it could cause him to the right, Bennett realized there was no way to stop the meeting, so it was best to ignore it. In contrast, Shaked decided to milk the event for political and media buzz. The question is: why?

Shaked tries to position himself within the coalition as a defender of the right. Since joining the current coalition, she has been mocked and belittled by large parts of her right-wing electorate. Ironically, her desire to restore her own image resembles the desire of the Meretz ministers to prove at their base that they have not abandoned the two-state solution. In either case, the partisan ideology conflicts with the need for the current coalition to maintain harmony among all its constituent parts. Without it, the coalition will collapse.

That was the background to Lapid’s message. It also stood behind Bennett’s comments during the Knesset opening session. “This government is stable,” he said in a speech addressed to his own coalition. “Please, God, the budget will be approved and we will remain sustainable. We intend to remain in office for the next four years.” He continued“For this to happen, we have to be extra responsible. None of us are asked to set aside our ideology or our views, but we are asked to rein in our behavior. That is exactly what it means to act wisely.”

It appears that Lapid and Bennett coordinated their messages. It is in their mutual interest to keep the coalition alive, even if it has only 61 seats, or a narrow majority. Both men know that, aside from any lofty talk of unity, the political system is not quite stable yet. In fact, it comes with a very limited warranty.

After doing the impossible and forming a government, they must remind each member of the coalition that it could fall apart at any moment. In other words, nothing about the current government should be taken for granted.

What this means in practice is that the Knesset’s winter session will test the maturity of this fragile coalition. After the first 100 days of relative calm, it will have to prove that it can rule in difficult circumstances. The first test will pass the second and third reading of the budget by the end of November.

The overall assessment is that the budget will succeed, even if there will be many difficulties along the way. All members of the coalition will be forced to make concessions for one simple reason: none of them want to break this partnership now. For some parties, new elections are a political death sentence.

The big question is what will happen after passing the budget, which is built up as a climax. There is some fear that coalition discipline will decline significantly once member parties feel safe enough to air their agenda.

The current government does not operate in a vacuum. Even after he was ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office and became Head of the Opposition, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains the most influential figure in the entire political system. Two polls released yesterday, found that the Likud led by Netanyahu is now expected to win 34-35 seats, making it the largest party in the country by a significant margin. The second largest party in these polls is Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which is expected to win about 20 seats.

Bennett’s Yamina party, however, has failed to gain public support. Bennett was convinced that once he took the office of the Prime Minister and… addressed the United Nations [Sept. 27], his popularity would rise. In fact, the exact opposite happened. In his most favorable poll, Yamina wins only 7 out of 120 seats. Never before has Israel been ruled by a prime minister with so little public support. It certainly matters when he is dealing with his coalition partners.

A Channel 13 poll found that more than 60 percent of the public are unhappy with Bennett’s performance. Likewise, the other right-wing party, New Hope, led by Attorney General Gideon Saar, is collapsing in the polls. In fact, it is not at all certain that it will even pass the electoral threshold.

All these polls suggest that coalition members will do everything they can to keep the coalition alive, rather than face another election with Netanyahu still in the picture. That’s why Saar rolling legislation that would prevent someone accused of a crime from forming a government. The legislation may have a moral component, but for the most part it aims to block one person in particular: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bennett once announced that he would not help pass laws targeting Netanyahu. Now it seems he has changed his mind. Meanwhile, people in Netanyahu’s orbit tell Al-Minitor that even such a law will not keep Netanyahu out of the game. In fact, it will actually strengthen public support for him. “Any law can be changed after the election,” one of Netanyahu’s associates told Al-Monitor, on condition of anonymity. “That will be our message to the public. If you want Netanyahu, vote for Likud. We will change the law once we are back in power.”

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