Nir Orbach, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, was in talks to join the opposition’s Likud party, according to Wednesday reports, as the governing coalition appeared headed for a collapse.
Orbach has denied the rumors, which came as the coalition careens from one crisis to the next, with government lawmakers increasingly fighting among themselves.
The lawmaker has told Bennett he doesn’t believe the coalition can survive and was said to be in talks with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to switch sides, with an announcement on the matter to come within days, Hebrew media reports Wednesday claimed. The reports could not be confirmed.
If he exits the coalition, the government would be left with just 59 seats in the Knesset, placing it in the minority, although not all opposition lawmakers are aligned.
Reports about Orbach’s departure came after the coalition failed Wednesday to thwart opposition-backed bills hiking the minimum wage, in the coalition’s second major defeat in days. The bills were able to pass preliminary readings when some coalition lawmakers bucked the government’s position to support the legislation.
The defeats have boosted efforts by the opposition’s right-religious bloc to maneuver Netanyahu back into power, either via a complicated governmental transition or by bringing down the coalition and forcing new elections.
Bennett’s diverse government of eight parties has been on the ropes since MK Idit Silman, a member of his own Yamina party, quit the coalition in April, erasing its parliamentary majority. Since then, the government has faced setbacks as some of the remaining members have not toed the line in the Knesset, breaking from the coalition stance in parliamentary votes.
Orbach has been pegged as a flight risk ever since Silman bolted and has issued ultimatums to stay in the coalition that were tied to his support of West Bank settlements. Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious opposition bloc has sought defectors from coalition parties on the right who they are ideologically close to.
The Walla news website reported that Orbach was in talks with Netanyahu’s party to leave the coalition in return for being guaranteed a place on the Likud roster in the next elections.
Netanyahu has promised Orbach a position in Likud if he defects, Ynet reported.
Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, a former member of Yamina who won a seat in the Knesset in the last elections but resigned to protest the inclusion of the Islamist Ra’am party in the coalition, was involved in the negotiations, the report said.
In private conversations earlier this week, Orbach reportedly said he had lost faith in the coalition, in particular because of the behavior of the left-wing Meretz party and Ra’am, according to the report. Lawmakers from both parties have voted against the coalition this week.
Though Orbach is acting on his own, Walla said he is keen to see Ayelet Shaked, the Yamina No. 2 and a longtime Bennett ally, join him in making a jump to the opposition. But sources familiar with the developments said Orbach believes that for the time being, Shaked will remain with Yamina.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that earlier this week Orbach told Bennett that as far as he is concerned, the coalition has no chance of surviving.
Orbach has also told those around him he believes the coalition’s days are numbered as it cannot rely on Ra’am to help it to pass the state budget, the failure of which will trigger elections, Kan said.
In the meantime, Orbach believes his right-wing Yamina party is losing support due to the deteriorating political situation and its partnership with parties with opposing ideologies. Bennett made a political gamble by joining with left-wing and Arab lawmakers to form the government last year.
Bennett and Shaked have been pressing Orbach, and his close associates, to order to keep him from exiting the coalition. Channel 12 reported that Bennett met with Orbach’s colleagues on Wednesday to ask them to pressure him to remain in the coalition.
Sources close to the lawmaker insist he has not yet made a decision on leaving, Kan said.
Orbach’s office issued a denial of the reports, saying the lawmaker “does not plan on holding a press conference.”
Davidi, the mayor, told Walla that its report on his involvement in talks is “not correct.”
On Monday, a critical piece of legislation to renew the application of Israeli criminal and some civil law to Israelis in the West Bank was defeated in the Knesset by the opposition with the assistance of two coalition MKs.
Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim and Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi both voted against that bill while other coalition lawmakers abstained. Their decision to break ranks sparked further coalition turmoil, with government leaders, including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, calling on the rebels to resign.
Orbach talked at length with Bennett after the vote failed, and was said to have made clear that he was fed up with the current coalition, according to reports.
Orbach’s frustration with Ra’am was on display in the Knesset Monday when the bill to renew legal status of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which has been in use for decades and approved every five years, was rejected. Opposition parties, though backing the bill in principle, opposed as part of their declared strategy to block all government legislation until it is ousted from power.
As the bill was defeated Orbach shouted at Ghanaim in the Knesset plenum, “You don’t know how to be partners. The experiment with you has failed,” referring to Ra’am’s pioneering vision of Arab-Jewish political partnership.
Silman, though a staunch supporter of the settlement movement, also missed the session, enabling the bill to be voted down. She then voted against the government in approving Yamina’s Matan Kahana to be reinstalled as religious affairs minister. It was the first time Silman had voted against the government rather than just abstaining and led to calls for her to be declared a defector, as was already done to another rebellious Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli.
Ousting Silman would require a vote by the Knesset House Committee, which is chaired by Orbach. Being declared a defector would mean Silman cannot run in the next elections as part of any existing party.
Silman is reportedly threatening to strike back against Orbach by releasing internal party documents if he helps Yamina declare her a defector.
“I won’t shut my mouth. I intend to release this if Nir ousts me,” Silman was quoted by Channel 12 News as saying to Orbach associates.
“It should be clarified to Nir that I have all his correspondences, all the Jewish Home reports,” she added, referring to a now-defunct party that both of them were a part of. “There are also people who gave me more material. Nir will be destroyed by this.”
The network cited an unnamed source calling Silman’s words “blackmail.” Silman’s office denied the report.
The Srugim news site reported that during the period Silman was apparently referring to, Orbach was director-general of Jewish Home which ran into serious financial difficulties, running up huge debts.
Complaints about the handling of affairs were dismissed by internal party tribunals and by police, according to the report.