analysisIsrael News

A fraught 48 hours portend major crisis for Netanyahu’s coalition

"We are the closest point to a real crisis in the government because of the [haredi] conscription bill,” says political analyst.

Shas MK Erez Malul (left) and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 19, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Shas MK Erez Malul (left) and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 19, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Amichai Stein. Credit: Courtesy.
Amichai Stein
Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

“Pull yourself together,” was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning to his government partners after 48 hours of coalition turmoil. 

It all started after Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, demanded approval for the “rabbis bill.” The legislation would vastly expand the Chief Rabbinate’s power to elect municipal rabbis instead of the local authorities doing so.

The bill, proposed by MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism Party) and MK Erez Malul (Shas), is widely viewed as an attempt to appoint rabbis affiliated with the two parties to rabbinical posts, which offer influence, status and high salaries.

The bill was shelved in October because of the Gaza war, but reemerged on Sunday, when Rothman, who is chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, announced that the committee would commence discussing the issue on Tuesday.

This provoked a public outcry and dissension from within the coalition. Netanyahu, at first, kept his eyes on the target—coalition coherence—and removed two Likud MKs from the committee who had announced that they would oppose the bill because it was not right to approve it during the war.

“I didn’t know I need to be controlled, and I didn’t know that I’m am an animal of some sort,” retorted MK Tally Gotliv, who along with MK Moshe Saada was removed from the committee. In the end, the committee didn’t vote on the bill and its consideration was postponed.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu was facing a rupture on the right. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has been upping his demands to be invited to the War Cabinet following the departure of National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz from the government.

 “A person who wants to join the forum should prove he is not leaking secrets out of confidential meetings,” was the Likud response.

Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party retorted, “We support the idea that every Security Cabinet [a broader forum than the War Cabinet and one in which Ben-Gvir serves] member should undergo a polygraph test, even those with a pacemaker” (Netanyahu has one).

“The events of the last 48 hours express my frustration,” Likud MK Eliyahu Revivo told JNS. Earlier this week, Revivo went as far as to raise the possibility that the government should consider early elections.

“A government does not necessarily reflect the dreams of all the residents of the country. But we have to take into account that the coalition’s requirements must be the same as the challenges that the state and the public are facing. And attention should be less sectoral,” he said,

The fraught 48 hours are just a taste of the major crisis still looming for the current coalition—the urgent need to pass a bill to draft some ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students. This is a law that the ultra-Orthodox parties vehemently oppose—and which more and more coalition members support.

“The ‘rabbis bill’ was a test case engineered by [Shas leader Arye] Deri and [United Torah Judaism leader Moshe] Gafni, the two ultra-Orthodox party leaders who say, ‘We fear that with this government nothing can be done,’” Ishay Cohen, a senior political correspondent at the ultra-Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabat, told JNS.

“The ‘rabbis bill’ is a law that is subject to criticism, but it’s far from the opposition to the conscription bill. The two said, ‘Let’s see if Netanyahu manages to pass the ‘rabbis bill’ first.’ Then the rebel MKs showed up and there’s is no coalition. Nothing is moving ahead,” said Cohen.

“We are the closest point to a real crisis in the government because of the conscription bill. Because of what happened during these last 48 hours, we have learned that there is no solution to the conscription bill, and in a few days there will be tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox who will be considered deserters, and [state] benefits will be taken from them, and then the parties will ask, ‘So why are we in the coalition?’”

Cohen added that some in the ultra-Orthodox parties believe that if opposition leader Yair Lapid and Gantz form a future government, they would want their support, and then a deal on the laws may be reached.

JNS asked Revivo if he thinks the government is about to fall.

“It’s a matter of time. If the question is one the near future—no. But if you ask me will the government be able to overcome the challenges facing the State of Israel and survive an entire term [until 2026]—it is still too early to tell,” he replied.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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