The question that echoed throughout the Knesset last week was “What does Nir Orbach want?” The Yamina member of Knesset, who just announced his resignation from the governing coalition, has made a series of startling decisions and found himself in limbo.
Supporters of the government are angry at him for speeding up its dissolution, but pleased he did not immediately join efforts to bring it down. The opposition stills suspect that Orbach will return to the coalition and help keep it in place. But they are happy, of course, that he has shaken it up.
On Monday, New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar is slated to bring his Judea and Samaria bill to a vote. If it doesn’t pass, the path to the dissolution of the Knesset will become a highway. Orbach is expected to support the bill in a preliminary reading, and from there it’s only a short step to the government breaking up entirely. If it passes, with help from the Joint List or some other way, the government might buy itself a few more months, maybe until after the Knesset returns from its summer recess.
There is a wide gap between Yamina MK Idit Silman’s resignation from the coalition and Orbach’s. Silman chose to present the move as an ideological choice. Orbach’s decision seems more like the National Religious Party’s politicking in the 1990s. It appears to be an attempt to close a deal with Likud without cutting ties with the coalition, thus bringing Bennett down while also helping him up.
Orbach and Bennett’s fourth conversation since the failure to pass the Judea and Samaria bill was the toughest. Bennett tried to get Orbach to say he would not help dissolve the Knesset, but Orbach didn’t respond. Bennett, who was trying to convince Orbach to give him a chance to right the ship, lost his patience.
Bennett also made use of U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit. This is a very sensitive diplomatic issue, particularly for the right. “You can imagine what will happen if Lapid is prime minister during the visit,” Bennett scolded Orbach. “He’ll go along with all the American demands. It would really work against the interests of the right.”
Despite Orbach’s decision, which worked to its benefit, the Likud expressed concern that even the bricks falling out of the coalition wall might not be enough to break up the government in the few weeks remaining until the summer recess. For the government to fall, action must be taken, such as passing a law to dissolve the Knesset. Besides the question mark over Orbach’s head, Likud also isn’t sure how members of the Joint List would vote.
Publicly, the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi, Ayman Odeh and their colleagues say they’ll vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset, but who knows what they’ll do when the time comes. The coalition’s talking point that an end to the government spells the return of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could influence the Joint List. Usually, there wouldn’t be a need for 61 votes to pass a bill to dissolve the Knesset, and it would be the government that initiated the move after its leader realized it could no longer function. Many prime ministers have done this, but the current government has lost any sense of shame. Bennett is already feeling the distress, but he cannot break up the government on his own, lest he lose out on serving as interim prime minister.
Despite daily humiliations in the Knesset, it seems like Yair Lapid is even more determined and uninhibited than Bennett when it comes to this issue. The sense is that everything can be sacrificed to preserve the stability of the coalition, even if it means working with the extremists in the Joint List.
Meanwhile, the gentlemen’s fight for the office of interim prime minister is being waged through winks and insults. Everyone is trying to bring down the government without making it public, thus arousing the ire of their colleagues. Lapid would very much like to see Orbach hit the button. Bennett would like it to be Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi or Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim. The big question, which remains unanswered, is what New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar wants.
According to the coalition agreements, Sa’ar is part of Bennett’s camp. If he or his people vote to dissolve the Knesset, the government will fall and Lapid will be named interim prime minister there and then. Theoretically, Sa’ar should prefer Bennett as prime minister, but actually, Bennett is afraid of what Sa’ar might decide to do.
If there is an election, Yamina and New Hope will begin talks to run on a joint ticket. Separately, they will both have difficulty passing the minimum electoral threshold. Bennett is worried that a joint ticket would lead to questions about who the leader is. To him, handing the reins over to Sa’ar is not an option, but to ensure that doesn’t happen, he needs to remain prime minister.
Let’s not forget that the possibility of a right-wing government already exists. To make it a reality, the Knesset would have to be on the verge of dissolving itself—as it was when Shaul Mofaz joined Netanyahu’s government moments before it collapsed in 2012. The architect of that agreement, Ze’ev Elkin, is currently pulling the strings for another possible deal. Back then, he was in Netanyahu’s service; now he is acting on behalf of Sa’ar; but Elkin will always choose the longest and most convoluted distance between two points.
Sa’ar won’t hand power over to Netanyahu on a silver platter, and Bennett certainly will not do so. But what we are seeing now, with the government still intact, is not what we’ll see when the threat of an election is in the air. When political futures are at stake, people become more flexible.
Netanyahu isn’t depending on that scenario, but he will not reject it if he concludes that he could lead a stable government. In any other scenario, he would prefer an election, given that polls show the Likud climbing to 36 seats.
Mati Tuchfeld is Israel Hayom’s senior political correspondent.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.