For anyone trying to understand from afar what happened with the Israeli government coalition the first week of April, take a deep breath and relax.
It’s true that a member of the prime minister’s small party decided to take her Knesset seat and vote to an opposition party, leaving the ruling government coalition without a parliamentary majority. It’s true that if another coalition member flees to the opposition, the government may fall. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a fifth election in about three years is around the corner.
“It’s still a rancorous electoral environment,” said Eli Sperling, who is completing his second year of post-doctorate work at Duke University, but he doesn’t think Israeli elections are imminent.
Sperling referred to a poll of Israeli voters, taken right after the defection of Yamina Party member Idit Silman, which indicated that if an election were to be held soon, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would, at best, cobble together a coalition of only 60 parliamentary seats. Right now, his opposition group numbers about 54, with a small Arab party sometimes joining his votes against the coalition government.
A parliamentary majority requires 61 because the Knesset has 120 seats. That was the number of seats in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s eight-party coalition until Silman defected. “I don’t think an election is coming within months,” Sperling predicted.
In the fall, he will become the Israel Institute Teaching Fellow at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he will teach a course on Israeli politics as well as a course on diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“UGA has never had an Israeli politics course or one about the conflict,” said Sperling. As usual, it’s “a fascinating period in Israeli politics.” And one that is also important for students to understand. Think of the 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate. A big difference in Israel, however, is that there is no vice president who can break a tie. The current 60-60 split in the Knesset means that it would be difficult to pass any meaningful legislation. But a government serving without a parliamentary majority is not without precedent in Israel.
Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak all governed with fewer than 60 seats in their coalitions. In fact, Sharon managed it for more than a year.
All surveys indicate that the majority of the Israeli electorate is in no mood to go to the polls. The last time they did was in March 2021, after which the current coalition was cobbled together, precariously connecting right-wing parties, left-wing parties and, for the first time, an Arab party. There had been three previous, inconclusive, elections since early 2019.
Despite how it may have at first appeared, the departure of Silman from the coalition government was not due to the controversy launched over a year ago when Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Israeli hospitals could not forbid bringing chametz, or leavened bread products, into hospitals during Passover. The court had ruled on this prior to Passover 2021 without incident.
Rather, Sperling says, “we’re seeing the greater issues at play in the Israeli electorate,” citing the powerplays at work by Netanyahu, who wants to return to power despite fighting several indictments against him in court. “He is not silent. He still has leverage and wants to throw it around.”
The fact that several lone-wolf terror attacks have occurred in various Israeli cities during the last few weeks, resulting in several Israeli casualties, ostensibly only heightens Netanyahu’s potential leverage. “There’s a sense in Israel society that the Likud model for security” is the most successful, Sperling said, referring to Netanyahu’s party.
“At the back of everything is the slowly moving cases against Netanyahu. The wheels of bureaucracy in the Israeli court system move slowly and he’s shown a savvy approach. He knows how to use politics.”
Sperling said he’s been most surprised by the “very measured tone” of the Israeli government and military in response to the terrorist attacks. Instead of further limiting the number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who can enter and work inside Israel, the government is suggesting an increase in the number of work permits.
“To me, this signals other trends” coming out of the Abraham Accords that Israel signed with several Arab countries over the last couple of years, he said.
“The Abraham Accords create this force of steadying the Israeli responses. The government wants to keep things calm, especially because of the war between Russia and Ukraine,” Sperling continued. “Israel is fractured over domestic issues but aware of the need to maintain the network in the region. Israel is in a unique and well-placed position.”
But, because the Knesset is on its Passover recess until May 9, chances are that nothing will happen before then.