Israeli Government Loses Parliament Majority, Raising Prospect of Election

CAIRO — A second lawmaker quit Israel’s governing coalition on Thursday, giving the opposition a narrow two-seat majority in Parliament and raising the possibility of a fifth election in three years.

Although the move will not necessarily bring down the current government, a fractious coalition of parties with clashing agendas, the loss of its majority underscores its instability and the risk that any divisive issue could topple it.

The government has come under intense pressure with the recent escalation of tensions between Israeli authorities and Palestinians — including clashes at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, terrorist attacks in Israel and a heavy military response in the occupied West Bank.

The lawmaker who resigned from the coalition on Thursday, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, a member of Israel’s Palestinian minority from the left-wing Meretz party, said she disagreed with the government’s treatment of the Arab community in Israel, specifically citing recent police interventions at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the police assault on mourners at the funeral of a Palestinian journalist last week.

Last month, a right-wing member of the coalition quit. That lawmaker, Idit Silman, said the government no longer reflected her right-wing and religious values.

The government coalition, the most diverse in Israel’s history, coalesced a year ago over one issue: a shared desire to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to break a political deadlock that had forced Israel into four elections in a row.

But the ideological incompatibility of the coalition’s eight constituent parties — an alliance of right-wing, left-wing, secular, religious and Arab groups — left it fragile from the start.

The defections could offer a political lifeline to Mr. Netanyahu, who now leads the opposition in Parliament.

Ms. Rinawie Zoabi’s defection means that opposition lawmakers now control 61 of the 120 seats in Parliament, enough to vote to dissolve the body and call for another election, the fifth since April 2019.

Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi said the police assault on mourners at the funeral of a Palestinian journalist “just broke my heart.” Credit…Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Opposition parties also have enough seats to create their own new coalition government without going to elections. But they are divided and may not be able to agree on a candidate for prime minister, making new elections more probable.

As a left-winger, Ms. Rinawie Zoabi is not expected to support a Netanyahu-led government. But she could join the opposition in voting for new elections as early as next week.

A new election would give Mr. Netanyahu another chance to win more seats for his right-wing alliance and a majority in Parliament.

Ms. Rinawie-Zoabi said that she had not decided whether to support a vote to dissolve Parliament but that her decision to leave the coalition was “definite.”

“What happened during the last month in Ramadan at Al Aqsa and mainly what happened regarding the awful pictures that we saw with the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian correspondent of Al Jazeera — this is something that just broke my heart and I can’t be part of this coalition,” she said in an interview.

But she left open the possibility of voting with the government from the outside.

Even without her, the government could still survive with a minority in Parliament until March 2023, when it will need a majority to pass a new budget. As prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir each led minority governments for extended periods, including when Mr. Rabin negotiated the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

The current coalition could also try to entice members of the opposition to join the government, reinstating its majority.

The coalition was cohesive enough to pass a new budget, Israel’s first in more than three years. It also made key administrative appointments and deepened Israel’s emerging relationships with key Arab states.

At its formation, Ms. Rinawie Zoabi said she had hoped the government would forge “a new path of equality and respect” between Jewish and Arab Israelis. In a first for Israel, the coalition included an independent Arab party, Raam, while an Arab was appointed as a government minister for only the third time in Israeli history.

Despite that early optimism, the government’s members clashed regularly over the rights of Israel’s Arab minority and over settlement policy in the occupied West Bank.

Tensions came to a head during the recent holy month of Ramadan, when the Israeli police regularly clashed with Palestinian stone-throwers at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a site sacred to both Muslims and Jews. They escalated further last week, when a Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, was fatally shot in the West Bank during an Israeli raid — and when the police attacked mourners carrying her coffin at her funeral two days later.

The clashes presented an immediate test to the government last month when the Arab party, Raam, suspended its participation in the coalition in protest of police actions at the Aqsa Mosque.

A crisis was narrowly averted last week when the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, rejoined the coalition, saying it was better for Israel’s Arab citizens if his party remained in the government.

But Mr. Bennett walks a political tightrope in a highly polarized Israeli society. He has few means of preventing further defections from the government’s left-wing and Arab members, and is struggling to prevent further rebellion from the coalition’s right-wing members.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the opening of the summer session of Parliament last week.Credit…Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

With the administration under pressure from the right to respond more forcefully to an increase in terrorist attacks, there are fears of further defections from right-wing members of the government.

Should new elections be called, Israel could be led by a new interim prime minister until a government is formed. Under the terms of the current coalition agreement, Mr. Lapid, the foreign minister, could take over from Mr. Bennett in the event of snap elections, depending on the manner in which the government collapses.

That could leave Mr. Lapid, a centrist former broadcaster, in charge for at least several months, through an election campaign and the protracted coalition negotiations that will most likely follow.

Carol Sutherland contributed reporting from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.