On Monday, Yamina MK Nir Orbach proclaimed that he was leaving the coalition. This announcement, which surprised absolutely no one, leaves Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid with a 59-seat Knesset minority on the coalition’s one-year anniversary. Inevitably, Orbach’s defection will inspire premature eulogies of the Bennett-Lapid government, amid simultaneous celebrations of the fact that it even reached a year in office. In truth, Orbach’s move is not the final nail in the government’s coffin, although, as the prime minister himself admitted, the end could certainly be nigh.

Defections themselves do not directly bring down governments. Bennett and Lapid’s coalition, which started out with 61 out of 120 Knesset seats, is now in the minority, and is even struggling to garner consistent support from its remaining MKs. But the government will endure until it is explicitly voted out of power by one of two means: a bill to dissolve the Knesset and trigger elections, or a constructive vote of no confidence that would immediately install a new government without fresh elections. Both scenarios require the support of a simple majority of at least 61 MKs.

In his announcement, Orbach was clear about which of these paths was preferable to him. Confirming weeks of rumors, Orbach is seeking to form an alternate right-wing government in the current Knesset, presumably with Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud at its head. Should this prove to be impossible, Orbach has made it clear that for the time being, he will not vote to dissolve the Knesset and send the country back to elections. However, should the deadlock persist, Yamina sources have suggested that this may change.

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

The coalition has been shaky for a while, most pressingly since Yamina MK Idit Silman quit the coalition in April. At the center of this current crisis is the renewal of the emergency law to extend Israeli criminal and some civil law to West Bank settlers, a piece of legislation which had been passed every five years without fanfare since 1967. That changed last week, when it was defeated by the opposition, who ideologically support the bill, for the sole purpose of embarrassing the government. Several Arab MKs in the coalition also contributed to the bill’s defeat: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Meretz) and Mazen Ghanayim (Ra’am) both voted against it, while the rest of Ra’am’s MKs were absent from the plenum.

Orbach placed blame for the incident solely on the Arab MKs; he shouted at Ghanayim after the vote, proclaiming “the experiment with you failed” in a dramatic rebuke of his party’s cooperation with Ra’am. In the statement announcing his resignation, he labeled Rinawie Zoabi and Ghanayim as “extreme, anti-Zionist” and chastized the government for working with them. The irony is, of course, that Orbach has now joined the very same opposition that proudly and shamelessly facilitated the West Bank bill’s defeat. Unlike his desired coalition partners, Orbach has made it clear that he will vote for the legislation when it comes for a vote again, and while the government intends to bring it for another vote, they still seem to lack the support needed to pass it. Should the Knesset fail to renew the regulations by July, it will have various detrimental effects on order and stability on both sides of the Green Line.

The key question now is what happens next. Even though the opposition nominally has a 61-seat majority, six of them are held by the predominantly Arab Joint List. That leaves the Netanyahu-led opposition with 55 MKs, which is six short of what they would need to install a new government. To make up this deficit, the next step will be to look to right-wing MKs in the coalition in the Yamina and New Hope parties. 

Yamina entered the Knesset with seven MKs, three of whom are now in the opposition: Amichai Chikli, Idit Silman, and Nir Orbach. That leaves Abir Kara, Matan Kahana, and Prime Minister Bennett, as well as Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. (While Shaked’s Knesset seat is currently held by Shirly Pinto under the Norwegian Law, Shaked can resign her ministerial post at will to reclaim it, meaning that she, not Pinto, ultimately has a say in the coalition’s future.) Bennett is obviously out of the question and Kahana, considered Bennett’s closest ally in the party, does not seem poised to betray the prime minister. Notably, in the wake of Silman’s defection in April, Kara, Shaked, and Orbach agreed to coordinate their moves going forward, amid widespread rumors that they were being actively courted by Likud. However, Kara expressed surprise at Orbach’s announcement and claimed that Orbach had told him he was going to temporarily freeze his involvement in the coalition pending the West Bank bill’s passage, rather than end it entirely. Whether this actually means the end of the Shaked-Kara-Orbach triangle is an open question. Shaked and Kara have no love for the coalition and are likely biding their time until the right moment. That would give the Netanyahu bloc 57.

Gideon Sa’ar speaking at a Likud conference in 2010 by Yaakov, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope ran as an explicitly anti-Bibi party founded by former Likudniks, so it is a far harder nut to crack than Yamina. Netanyahu would need four out of six of its MKs to support him, assuming Shaked and Kara are also on board. Israeli media has speculated that Sa’ar is in talks with Likud about forming a coalition, which he has vehemently denied. It may seem unlikely that a majority of New Hope MKs would betray their core campaign promise, but they would not be the first ones to do so. After framing the settlement bill’s passage as a litmus test for the government’s stability, Sa’ar, like Orbach, tellingly blamed its failure to pass on the Arabs, rather than the opposition. This could suggest that an increasingly frustrated Sa’ar is paving the way for his departure. Indeed, he may see that the writing is on the wall, as polls consistently show New Hope failing to pass the electoral threshold if new elections are held. 

Orbach’s defection does not immediately spell the government’s end, but with the coalition increasingly unable to function and its future appearing increasingly bleak, the path to building a Likud-led government is getting easier day by day. More exotic scenarios are also possible yet unlikely, such as bringing in Benny Gantz. Defectors aside, the government is dealing with multiple dissident and disgruntled MKs who are preventing it from functioning, including Rinawie Zoabi and Ghanayim and Kahol Lavan MK Michael Biton. Last week’s controversy around the settlement bill may have expedited the government’s disintegration, but the choice to blame the whole affair solely on the Arab MKs rather than the opposition suggests a deeper underlying distrust of the coalition’s very DNA, built on compromise and sacrifice. Yamina and New Hope MKs have a clear incentive to avoid elections at all costs, and many could opt to do what it takes to avoid them—including joining with Bibi. At the end of the day, politicians are politicians.