Consequential Cracks in Israel’s Coalition

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Anyone following political developments in Israel knows the numbers: Israel’s right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has 64 of the 120 votes in the Knesset. When operating in concert, the coalition controls most of what goes on in Israel and every vote in the Knesset.

Following the Knesset passage of a heavily bartered and much-maligned two-year budget a couple of weeks ago, most people assumed that the coalition would live out its four-year term, even if it might experience occasional hiccups and opportunistic grabs for power by different party leaders along the way.

The reasoning was simple. No single party in the coalition can remain in power without the support of the other partners. And because of the ongoing tension and high levels of voter frustration with many of the doctrinaire policies being promoted by its more extreme elements, virtually every coalition party would lose a significant percentage of its mandates were new elections to be held now. As a result, coalition members need to stick together to stay in power.

Then came June 14 and an important vote on an aspect of the coalition’s controversial judicial overhaul proposal — an issue that has energized massive weekly demonstrations and heated opposition and debate within Israel and beyond. Although the overhaul proposal has been the subject of negotiation under the auspices of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and slow but steady progress has been reported, the issue is not resolved. One important overhaul issue relates to the method by which judges are selected. Proponents of “reform” want more elected officials in the process and opponents want more judges in the process. Since the issue is not yet resolved and a vote on Knesset members for the panel had to be taken, it was assumed that voting would follow the tradition of electing one member from the coalition and one from the opposition with the possibility of changing things once an agreed approach was negotiated. That didn’t happen.

Coalition hardliners wanted to use their numbers to elect two overhaul supporters and abandon the tradition of accommodating both sides. Rather than let that happen, Netanyahu sought to frustrate the vote by orchestrating the withdrawal of all coalition candidates for the panel and urged a “no” vote on the single opposition candidate. The result would have been to delay voting on the issue for a month and to allow further negotiation.

But in the secret ballot that followed, four members of the coalition broke ranks with Netanyahu and voted with the opposition parties to elect MK Karine Elharrar of the centrist Yesh Atid party to the panel. None of the coalition candidates got sufficient votes to be elected. So the only panel member elected thus far opposes the overhaul plan.

The ramifications of the mini-rebellion are significant and reflect recognition from at least some coalition members that the right-driven judicial overhaul seeks to go too far and is not good for Israel. If that move forces proponents to take a step back and consider less drastic overhaul measures, that would be great. But, more likely, it will prompt more forceful pressure from proponents to double down and push through their agenda.

We still hope that a reasoned middle ground of thoughtful, democratic reform can be reached and further upheaval avoided. We urge Netanyahu and friends to join in that effort. ■

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