As the coalition licks its wounds in the wake of Yamina MK Idit Silman’s defection last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is going on the defensive in order to safeguard the government and prevent additional members of the coalition from quitting. This pivot will mark a major turning point in Bennett’s premiership that will have significant implications on policy as well as politics, and in particular could bring about a noticeable shift on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Silman’s departure was a major blow to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s government, which is now locked with the opposition in a 60-60 tie in Knesset seats. The government is hanging on by a thread, only one more defection away from handing the opposition a majority that could vote to dissolve the Knesset and trigger new elections. In the meantime, it has no guaranteed majority to pass legislation (assuming all MKs are present). Silman’s loss was also a devastating blow to Bennett’s standing in his Yamina party. After Yamina entered the Knesset with seven seats—unprecedentedly meager for the party of a prime minister—only five Yamina MKs, including Bennett, remain members of the coalition. (The other defector was rogue MK Amichai Chikli, who voted against the formation of the government, effectively breaking with the party.)

Then-President Reuven Rivlin meets with Yamina representatives prior to the formation of the government by Mark Neyman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image).

This political bombshell highlights a strange dynamic characterizing this moment in Israeli politics: Yamina is both the party of the sitting prime minister, and the party that seems most poised to take that prime minister down. This poses two related, yet distinct, challenges for Naftali Bennett—maintaining the integrity of the coalition, while also proving its (and his) legitimacy to the members of his own party.

In order to achieve the latter, Bennett will have to demonstrate his right-wing bona fides. Previously viewed as a hard-right figure who championed policies like West Bank annexation, as prime minister of such a broad coalition, Bennett has shifted his tone to fashion himself as a more pragmatic voice. He has had to let stances on politically charged issues like promoting West Bank settlement growth take a back seat, lest he alienate his left-wing and centrist partners. 

But this strategy has clearly dented his legitimacy in the eyes of fellow Yamina members. Silman’s primary reason for quitting the coalition was her perception that her party members were sacrificing their right-wing values and endangering the state’s “Jewish character” by sitting in a government with secularists, left-wingers, and Arabs. This sentiment echoes the rhetoric of the Netanyahu-led opposition since the government took office last June, and from the perspective of the average Yamina voter, it is a compelling argument. The Yamina party’s predominantly dati leumi (national religious) base voted for Naftali Bennett and Yamina (which, it should be noted, literally translates to ‘rightward’ or ‘to the right’) based on their right-wing credentials, including a pro-settlement stance and staunch opposition to the two-state solution. Keeping Netanyahu out of power has never been a priority for this community, and yet that is the goal that motivated the formation of the government Bennett now leads. 

Amid Silman’s departure, other Yamina MKs have expressed similar misgivings. According to Channel 12, Yamina officials suggested that Abir Kara had met with both Silman and Chikli to discuss him also leaving the coalition, although he ultimately decided against it. There are also reports that Nir Orbach berated Bennett at a Yamina party meeting the day after Silman’s defection, criticizing him for neglecting the party’s ideological foundation. Specifically, Orbach called the prime minister out for his use of the term ‘West Bank’, rather than ‘Judea and Samaria,’ in a recent meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Prime Minister Bennett meets with Secretary of State Blinken by Freddie Everett/U.S. Department of State

While we can now be certain the prime minister will never again be caught dead uttering the phrase ‘West Bank’, the implications of these intra-Yamina tensions go deeper than mere rhetoric. Last week, Orbach presented Bennett with an ultimatum and demanded three policy concessions in exchange for remaining in the coalition: reversing a plan to cancel daycare subsidies for yeshiva students, connecting illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank to the power grid, and convening a committee to approve 4,000 new West Bank homes. The government has already moved forward on the first two points: Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman met with Orbach last week and agreed to delay canceling the subsidies, and just this week, the Justice Ministry approved connecting some illegal outposts to the power grid, pending authorization from the Defense Ministry. Approving the new settlement housing would also require a green light from Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

It is remarkable (though certainly understandable) how quickly government officials have moved to assuage Orbach’s concerns. The pressure on Gantz to play along for the good of the coalition will doubtlessly be significant, and despite his reluctance, it is hard to believe that Gantz would let denying Orbach’s ultimatum be the hill the government dies on (unless, of course, he’s planning his own defection, as many suspect). And at least in the near future, it seems that the government is not going anywhere. Following a series of meetings last week which, according to Yamina officials, stopped the “bleeding,” it seems that at least for the time being, we are unlikely to see additional defections.

But now that Silman has opened the Pandora’s box of right-wing grievances, Orbach is far from the last disgruntled MK who will need placating. It is inevitable that more coalition members, particularly from Yamina, will come forward with a policy wishlist to fulfill in exchange for enduring loyalty. As a result, we can expect a palpable shift to the right from Bennett, primarily in rhetoric emphasizing the Jewish character of the state or the legitimacy of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, both essential issues for both the average Yamina voter and Yamina lawmaker. Constrained by his coalition partners and without a Knesset majority, Bennett is obviously limited in what he can do, but we will likely see a renewed push for settlement construction in controversial areas like E-1 and Givat HaMatos, retroactive legalization of illegal outposts, and an abandonment of proposed religious reforms like more public transportation on shabbat or an egalitarian section at the Kotel. This may be the cost of keeping the government alive and delaying the all-but-certain elections on the horizon. 

MK Nir Orbach of Yamina by Meir Elipur, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image).

The 54 other members of the coalition, most of whom are not right-wing, will not be content to step aside and let a faction of six drive the government’s agenda. Bennett certainly does not want to alienate his centrist, left-wing, and Arab partners, and he has no desire to see the government collapse from the left. Nor will Foreign Minister and Prime Minister-in-waiting Yair Lapid, Bennett’s political partner whose centrist Yesh Atid party is by far the largest in the coalition, stand for a right-wing agenda going unchecked.

At the end of the day, however, it is in Bennett’s interests to appease his right-wing colleagues and voters. To begin with, he would much prefer to see the next defectors come from the left rather than the right, since the coalition agreement stipulates that Lapid would become interim prime minister if Bennett’s bloc brings down the government, and vice versa. Practical considerations aside, the right has always been Bennett’s political home. If Bennett’s legacy in this government is that he catered to and emboldened the left at the expense of his own voters, regardless of whether it is true, it will spell the end of his political career. Now he has no choice but to face Yamina—if not to save the government, at least to save himself.