Yamina MK Nir Orbach quits coalition, dropping ruling bloc into minority

Yamina MK Nir Orbach announced Monday that he was no longer part of the coalition, again dropping the ruling bloc to minority status in the Knesset with just 59 seats.

Orbach, in a statement, accused “extremist, anti-Zionist elements,” such as Arab MKs Mazen Ghanaim (Ra’am) and Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz), of pulling the coalition “in problematic directions” and “holding it hostage.”

While Orbach, a longtime ally of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, said the coalition had failed in its main mission of “lifting [Israelis’] spirits,” he clarified that he would not vote in the coming week to disperse the Knesset and initiate snap elections. Instead, he vowed to work to form an alternative coalition with a “patriotic spirit” in the existing parliament — a tall order given that the Knesset appears to still contain a majority of MKs who refuse to join a coalition with opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

Orbach was seen as one of the weakest links of the coalition for the past month, but that perception intensified last week when the ruling bloc failed to pass legislation extending Israeli legal provisions to settlers living in the West Bank.

One Yamina MK Idit Silman walked out of the plenum for the vote and another Yamina lawmaker, Amichai Chikli, voted against the bill along with the opposition. But more attention was given to Ghanaim and Zoabi, who voted against it despite still being members of the coalition. Orbach almost got into a physical altercation with Ghanaim after the bill was felled and shouted, “The experiment with you guys has failed,” in reference to the coalition’s unprecedented inclusion of an Arab party — Ra’am.

Orbach becomes the third Yamina MK to desert Bennett, who is left with just four party members in the coalition. Chikli bolted before the government was even sworn in, over its inclusion of left-wing parties. Silman, who was coalition whip, quit the coalition in April, saying it was eroding the Jewish character of the state. While Chikli has regularly voted against the coalition since, Silman has been more careful, in an apparent effort to avoid being designated a rebel and being slapped with sanctions. Orbach’s statement hinted that he will pursue the latter route. Unlike Silman, though, he informed Bennett of his decision ahead of time.

Former coalition whip and Yamina MK Idit Silman speaks with Likud faction chair MK Yariv Levin during the Knesset House Committee hearing on Yamina’s request to declare MK Amichai Chikli a “defector” from the party, April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“After a week of meetings with the prime minister and others, I came to the conclusion that the coalition cannot continue to exist the way it’s conducting itself,” Orbach’s statement read.

“About a year ago, my friends and I believed that it was possible and necessary to get Israel out of the [cycle of elections]. We formed a coalition based on very clear guidelines,” he continued. “Unfortunately, the coalition today is not fulfilling its mission.”

Given that the government has barely held a majority in the Knesset since its inception, reports have periodically surfaced that members were in touch with certain MKs from the majority-Arab Joint List opposition party to secure their support in order to keep the government from falling. Orbach said Monday that he would not allow this to happen, while acknowledging that “we are on the verge of a slippery slope that could lead us there.”

While Ra’am has been legitimized as a coalition partner by government members over its willingness to focus almost exclusively on civilian matters affecting Arab Israelis, the Joint List continues to put the Palestinian issue high on its agenda and takes more hardline positions on diplomatic matters, which have made its members persona non grata to many parties in the Knesset.

Despite his differences with the coalition, Orbach explained why he would not vote to disperse the Knesset. “I do not think going to the polls is the preferred alternative. Election rounds do not serve the stability required for government in this country.”

The coalition has been eulogized several times over the past few months, given the alarming rate of resignations by members. But so far, each time, Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have managed to stanch the bleeding and hobble on. Last month, Meretz’s Rinawie Zoabi announced that she was quitting the coalition — leaving it temporarily with 59 MKs — only to walk back the move days later following intensive talks with Lapid, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas and others. However, that ordeal exposed an additional weak spot in the coalition, which was highlighted last week when the rebel Meretz MK refused to vote for the bill extending legal provisions to settlers.

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (L) speaks with Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim (R) during a Knesset discussion on a bill to renew the application of some Israeli law to settlers, June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both Ra’am’s Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi have vowed to vote against the West Bank law again should it come up for another vote, which may have led to Orbach’s decision to quit. However, his office clarified that he would still vote in favor of the settler bill out of “national responsibility.”

Yesh Atid MK Boaz Toporovsky sought to downplay talk of snap elections, telling Army Radio after Orbach’s announcement that the government could still function without a majority in the Knesset.

“If we see that we’re only here to rule [and not pass laws], we’ll do what we have to,” said Toporovsky, the current coalition whip. He argued that the alternative — a government led by Netanyahu, who is under criminal indictment — is far worse.

Orbach’s decision prompted renewed chatter over who would serve as caretaker prime minister should elections be called and until the next government is formed. According to their coalition agreement, Bennett is allowed to stay on as premier if a member of the Lapid-led bloc of Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and Ra’am hands the opposition the decisive vote in downing the government, while Lapid would take over as prime minister if that vote comes from Bennett’s bloc of Yamina and New Hope. If the government manages to soldier on, the coalition deal would rotate Lapid into the prime minister’s seat in August 2023, though few analysts predict the bloc surviving past the passing of the budget next March, let alone a further five months.

Asked, shortly before Orbach announced his decision, whether he was worried that Bennett might act to block him from serving as premier, Lapid was dismissive. “I’m not afraid that Bennett will prevent me from serving as prime minister. I know him and we have too good of a relationship based on trust for me to listen to all the gossip,” he told reporters during a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2022. (Maya Alleruzzo / POOL / AFP)

For his part, Bennett after the latest blow insisted that he would still fight to keep the government afloat.

“We’re fighting for this government — that’s the truth. This government is excellent [even though] it relies on a complicated coalition,” he said in remarks at the Knesset.

He admitted, however, that the coalition may only have a week or two left, unless renegade MKs return to the fold and pull the alliance back into the majority.

“There are members of the coalition who still haven’t internalized the importance of the hour,” he said. “I call on members of the coalition who are set on voting against the government, we have a week or two to get this straight, and then we can continue a long time. If not — then we cannot [continue].”

He went on to lash out at the opposition for rendering his government impotent. “In all the years of the Knesset there has not been an opposition so undignified, so intent on scorched earth as you.”

Bennett also mocked the Likud-led opposition’s denials about having held talks with Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas about joining their own coalition before they the party flipped on him and began calling the Islamist Party “terror-supporting” after it joined Bennett’s coalition. “I met Mansour Abbas like a man. I’m not ashamed,” Bennett said.

Senior Likud MK Yariv Levin said in a statement that the “scandal” that is the current government must be brought to an end.

“Imagine [how people would react] if Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud had clung so tightly” to power as Bennett and the other government members are doing now, he said.

“It is time for all coalition partners to loosen their grip on the country’s throat. It is necessary and possible to immediately form a right-wing government — or return the mandate to the electorate” by calling new elections.

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