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Why is Israel’s governing coalition falling apart? The players, the ironies and the possible outcomes explained

Ten months into a so-called “change government” that ousted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years and four elections, Israel is facing another political crisis, triggered not by a security crisis or budget woes, but by a spat over rules for Passover food in hospitals. On Wednesday, the coalition government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid lost its majority in the Knesset, triggering the possibility of an unprecedented fifth election within three years and raising anew questions about the health of Israel’s democracy.

Here is a breakdown of events that led to the collapse of the relatively young government and what might happen next.

Many thought Bennett would not last 100 days or pass a budget, but he did. He even tried to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. What changed?

The coalition government was made up of parties of conflicting ideologies who were united in their goal to remove Netanyahu and advance their political careers. The leaders agreed to focus on domestic issues like the pandemic and economics and avoid contentious ones like the Palestinian conflict, and formed an alliance among right-wing, center-left and even an Islamist Arab party to gain the required majority of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. It was the first government in decades that did not include Haredi parties.

For the first time in three years, the Knesset passed a budget last November. It tackled multiple coronavirus outbreaks without a lockdown; it restored warm ties with the U.S. Democratic administration; and increased funding for Israeli Arab towns.

israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett and alternative prime minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the Knesset in Jerusalem Image by Danny Shem-Tov - Knesset Spokesperson's Office

The seeming political stablity and the trust Bennett and Lapid developed around their agreement to rotate the premiership after two years allowed both leaders to focus on diplomatic matters. Lapid just last month hosted a historic Mideast peace summit with his counterparts from Arab states and Bennett established himself on the global stage as a successful leader around COVID. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he visited with President Vladimir Putin and has offered himself as an arbitrator to both sides.

Many American Jews and secular Israelis also saw the government as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to liberalize religious rules given the absence of the Haredi parties, who for years had traded total control of kashrut, marriage, conversion and other matters for their votes on security and economic matters.

It was not free of drama. The Biden administration’s plan of reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians created some friction within the coalition. Netanyahu’s brief flirtation with state prosecutors about a possible plea deal that would result in his retirement almost opened an opportunity for the right to regroup and potentially oust the “change” government.

In the end, several rounds of personal rows among the partners and a societal debate over religion and state – particularly about which rabbis can conduct conversions and egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall – led to the unraveling.

Critics said Bennett had turned a blind eye to what was happening in his backyard while he sought to establish himself as a global leader on Ukraine. His recent use of the phrase “West Bank” in a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken – instead of the biblical name “Judea and Samaria” favored by settlers are others on the right – irked members of his Yamina party and others in the nationalist camp as a step too far.

The final straw came as a surprise Wednesday morning, when a little-known Knesset member named Idit Silman announced she was bolting the coalition over a decision by the health minister to allow visitors to bring non-kosher food into hospitals during Passover, leaving Bennett and Lapid one vote short of a majority.

Who is Idit Silman?

Silman, 41, is a member of Bennett’s own Yamina party, which he created in 2019 after quitting the national religious Bayit Yehudi party. She was first elected to the Knesset in 2019, and since the new government was formed has served as majority whip, a thankless job responsible for making sure the coalition remains united in voting for legislation its leaders support.

The role is usually given to a loyalist. And Silman withstood much fire from conservative members of the opposition, particularly in Netanyahu’s Likud faction, who accused her of abandoning her ideological roots for personal gain.

Israeli Prime Minister Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets Shirley Pinto, Israel's first deaf Knesset member, after her swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset (parliament) in Jerusalem on June 16, 2021

Idit Silman (on the right) as Israeli Prime Minister Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets Shirley Pinto, Israel’s first deaf Knesset member, after her swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset on June 16, 2021 Image by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Silman said Wednesday that her defection was out of concern for the Jewish identity of Israel. In recent days, she had publicly denounced the leftist health minister, Nitzan Horowitz, over his directive regarding leavened food products, known as chametz, inside hospitals during the eight-day holiday. Horowitz’s move followed a 2020 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court that a ban on chametz in hospitals that had been enforced by the chief rabbinate was a violation of citizens’ rights to religious freedom.

Silman, who is religious, prefaced her move with a declaration on Sunday that the health minister’s order was a “red line” that could shake up the government. She had previously opposed moves by Matan Kahana, the minister of religious services and a close ally of Bennett, to relax the gender-segregation rules at the Western Wall.

The recent wave of terror attacks and growing opposition by the settler movement to the government’s de-facto freeze in building in the occupied West Bank increased the political pressure on Silman to make a move.

She is said to be in negotiations with Netanyahu and his associates over what she would get in exchange for her defection to his Likud Party, along with incentives for other members of Bennett’s party to follow suit. Israeli media has reported that she has been promised a minister position if Likud manages to form the next government.

Silman is the second member of Bennett’s party to join the opposition. Amichai Chikli, 40, voted against creating the coalition as it was being formed last June, arguing he was remaining loyal to the principles of the party. Since then, he has joined the opposition on key votes to become a tie-breaker.

Support for the government now stands at 60 seats out of 120 seats. But Israeli media reported Thursday that another member of Bennett’s party had issued an ultimatum, promising to bolt the coalition if it didn’t immediately shift policy in support of West Bank settlements.

The opposition is also fractured, and Netanyahu’s camp would need 61 votes to dissolve this government. .

What could happen next?

Since the Knesset is in recess until May, the political earthquake is in a bit of limbo.

Bennett and Lapid could potentially survive as leaders of a minority government – lacking a majority to pass legislation, but remaining in power because the opposition also cannot muster a majority. Bennett claimed on Wednesday evening that he secured the support of the five remaining members of Yamina. But at least two of them, Abir Kara and Nir Orbach, are seen as potential imminent defectors.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, as Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) looks on, in Jerusalem on August 22, 2021.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, as Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) looks on, in Jerusalem on August 22, 2021. Image by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A minority government’s inability to pass signature bills that are important to some of the partners could also widen the rift between an already uncomfortable coalition of parties to a breaking point.

The Knesset was expected, upon its return in May, to pass an economic package introduced by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, legislation to expand military pensions backed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and term limits for prime ministers that is a pet project of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. All would require 61 votes that Bennett currently cannot count on.

The government was also planning on moving up the 2023-2024 budget for approval in May to avoid a potential crisis like the one that felled the prior government in in 2020.

A surprising new powerbroker could emerge in Ahmad Tibi, a relatively moderate member of the United Arab List.

Tibi could follow the model of Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, who enabled the creation of the current government by giving Bennett and Lapid the four votes he controls, in exchange for additional funds and better access to government services for Arab areas. .

Tibi – and, potentially, the other Knesset member from his Ta’al party – could give the Bennett-Lapid government a lifeline for the coming months.

But that could multiply the difficulties of managing a government of such divergent factions. It would likely lead to elections sooner or later.

A new government

An unlikely though possible scenario would be for the opposition to convince some right-leaning Knesset members now in the coalition to topple the government through a no-confidence motion without new elections.

That requires the presentation of an alternative prime minister and cabinet, and its approval by a majority of at least 61.

Experts say there is no chance of that happening with Netanyahu at the helm. The six Arab members of United List and the right-wing parties headed by his conservative rivals have all vowed not to allow Netanyahu’s return to the prime minister’s office.

Gantz, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces, is the one person who has been mentioned in the past as a possible compromise candidate to replace Bennett, combining factions from the current government and opposition. Gantz was slated to become prime minister under a rotation agreement with Netanyahu, but Netanyahu reneged, instead calling another election.

Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz.

Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. Image by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Netanyahu would need to give up on his desire to return to the prime minister’s office in the near future, as his corruption trial advances, and Gantz would need to place his trust in a person he disavowed as dishonest for that to happen. Netanyahu could also remove himself from consideration in favor of another Likud member tasked with forming a new government.

But Netanyahu has only seemed buoyed by Silman’s surprise move. He views this as a vindication of his pre-election warnings, and polls show he remains the person the public sees as most qualified to be prime minister.

Snap elections

The preferred option for the opposition is to garner the support of another member of the coalition to reach the 61 votes required to dissolve the Knesset and call another election. That is party because of polls published on Wednesday showing an increase of support for the parties in the opposition.

A snap poll conducted for Channel 13 projected that Netanyahu would be just one vote short of the 61 needed to form a government if an election were held now. That was the highest level of support Netanyahu has seen in public polls since 2019, though it is still not enough to give him a clear path to forming a government.

Former Israeli prime minister and current leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an anti-government protest by Israeli right-wing demonstrators in Jerusalem on April 6, 2022. -

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an anti-government protest in Jerusalem on April 6, 2022. Image by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

So any comeback would depend on a severe drop in support for Bennett or Sa’ar, or for Netanyahu to persuade another party to join his camp.

Even if he failed to win back the coveted premiership, an electoral gain would give Netanyahu some leverage in his negotiations with prosecutors for a potential plea with no jail time.

A new election would likely spell trouble for Bennett, who remains without a significant base of support despite his title, and for the right-wing/religious camp.

First, Lapid would immediately take over as interim prime minister until a new government is formed. That would give him an advantage, running as an incumbent, as well as a couple of months in power to implement his liberal agenda.

It could also help Netanyahu make his case for a comeback since he has struggled to label the Bennett-led coalition as leftists. Lapid, who entered politics in 2013, has never managed to win more than 20 Knesset seats, and lags behind Netanyahu in the public polls on qualification for prime minister.

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