The recent return of the Ra’am Islamic party to Israel’s precariously balanced government shows just how significantly political self-preservation motivates the members of the eight-party coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
When first formed a short 11 months ago, the Bennett-Lapid coalition had 61 members — a razor thin majority in the 120-member Knesset. Few believed the delicate coalition could survive the rough and tumble realities of Israeli political life. But it has survived, even through the resignation last month of Yamina party leader Idit Silman, which shrank the coalition ranks to a 60-seat deadlock with the opposition. Since the loss of one more seat will topple the Bennett-Lapid regime, every effort is being made to keep the coalition together, even as Bennett and Lapid themselves jockey for positioning for the prime minister post should the government collapse and require new elections.
What keeps the parties from straying too far is the fear of defeat in the next election. Each of the coalition parties compromised some aspect of its historic aims in order to join the ideologically diverse coalition, and each faces an uncertain future were new elections to be called now. Ra’am, with four Knesset seats, is a case in point.
Led by Mansour Abbas, Ra’am is the first Arab party to join an Israeli government. In doing so, Abbas made a pragmatic decision to table the Palestinian issue and work instead to get practical benefits for his constituents, many of whom are Bedouin in the Negev. Abbas has focused on issues like housing and fighting crime. And he has made some progress. But he needs the coalition to survive in order to achieve more.
Abbas’ pragmatism set an important precedent that will enable other Arab parties to join a Zionist-led government, similar to the Haredi Orthodox parties that have historically put their disagreement with Israel’s existence aside to join governments and reap the benefit in generous budgets for their schools and social services, in protecting their exemptions from the draft and in maintaining Haredi hegemony over the rabbinate.
Last month, however, Ra’am froze its membership in the coalition in response to the outbreak of violence on the Temple Mount. Almost immediately, Netanyahu’s Likud scheduled a no-confidence vote in the Knesset, hoping to topple the government. By rejoining the coalition, Abbas doomed, for now, any no-confidence vote.
Similar political self-preservation played out late last week when Matan Kahana of the Yamina party announced his resignation as minister of religious services. As a result, Kahana will resume his seat in the Knesset, pushing out Yom Tov Kalfon, who is viewed as a “weak link” in Yamina, and who many feared would follow Silman and join the opposition. With Kalfon gone and Kahana in place, Bennett strengthens his coalition and helps ensure that one less right-wing resignation threat could topple his government and enable Lapid to become interim prime minister.
The permutations are mind-bending, with political self-preservation a recurring, potent motivator to keeping the coalition together. How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.