By ILAN BEN ZION – Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — A lawmaker quit Israel’s ruling coalition on Wednesday after a dispute over religious observance during the Passover holiday, throwing the fragile alliance into disarray with no majority in parliament and raising the prospect of a new round of elections.
Backbencher Idit Silman had recently objected to the government allowing bread to be brought into public hospitals, contrary to the Jewish religious practice of abstaining from bread and other leavened foods during Passover . Hospitals welcome patients of all religions.
But there were also indications that Silman, a religious lawmaker with strong nationalist views, had been uncomfortable serving in Israel’s diverse coalition and had been plotting its exit for some time.
“The key values of my worldview are incompatible with current reality,” Silman wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, adding that she could no longer bear to see those unspecified values undermined as a member. of the coalition.
She urged him “to recognize the truth: we tried. The time has come to think of a new course. Trying to form a nationalist, Jewish and Zionist government.
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His decision raises the possibility of new legislative elections, less than a year after the government took office. While Bennett’s government remains in power, it is now paralyzed in the 120-seat parliament and will likely struggle to function.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted Wednesday night that he had spoken to Bennett “and we will work and try to preserve the government.”
Bennett’s coalition of eight political parties, ranging from Islamists to hardline nationalists and accommodating liberals, now holds 60 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
The coalition came together last June, bound by little more than a common opposition to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite differences within the coalition, she managed to pass a budget, navigate the coronavirus pandemic and strengthen relations with the Biden administration and Israel’s Arab allies. Although Bennett has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians, he has tried to take steps to improve living conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and contain tensions following a series of Palestinian attacks that have killed 11 Israelis.
But some members of Bennett’s Yamina party, which promotes a religious and nationalist agenda, have been uncomfortable with uniting with Islamist and liberal parties since the government was created in June. A party member broke ranks rather than join. Silman followed suit on Wednesday.
Israeli media reported that Bennett sought to rally his party members at a meeting on Wednesday, saying the other coalition parties were staying on board.
Earlier in the week, Silman argued with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the dovish and secular Meretz party, over his determination that hospitals obey the law and not stop people from bring bread during Passover.
The Knesset is currently on recess, and it remains unclear whether the opposition will now have enough support to stage a no-confidence vote and send Israelis to the polls for the fifth time in just over three years.
To overthrow the government, opposition lawmakers would need to get 61 votes in favor of dissolving parliament – or as many in favor of forming an alternative governing coalition.
Netanyahu, who has led Israel for the past 12 years, has worked as opposition leader to untangle the coalition trying to entice members of Bennett’s party. Netanyahu and other opposition politicians called on other members to follow Silman in order to achieve this goal.
“To friends who are still in this coalition, I say: go home,” Netanyahu said. “Join Idit Silman, join us, and together we will lead Israel back to the path of success, achievement, security and peace.”
While the Passover dispute had been in the headlines for the past few days, Israeli media say Silman had been planning to leave the coalition for some time.
Israel’s Haaretz daily said Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a veteran politician, warned Bennett last Thursday that he feared Silman was about to leave. The report says Silman’s husband helped plan his exit with Betzalel Smotrich, a hardline ultranationalist opposition figure. In the “properties” section of Wednesday’s resignation letter, Smotrich’s name appeared as the author.
Israel has held four elections in two years in a protracted political crisis over Netanyahu’s fitness to govern as he stands trial for corruption. The deadlocked election was finally broken in June, when Bennett and his allies ousted Netanyahu by cobbling together a coalition of unlikely allies.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said that while Silman’s departure did not bring down the government, it put the country “into political crisis mode”.
“Bennett’s government is losing its majority in parliament and its degree of freedom to maneuver, to pass laws, to obtain a majority for its decisions,” Plesner said.
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