Israeli Government Loses Parliament Majority, Raising Prospect of Election

CAIRO – A second lawmaker has quit Israel’s governing coalition, giving the opposition a narrow two-seat majority in Parliament and raising the possibility of a fifth election in three years that would deepen the country’s political stasis.

Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, a member of Israel’s Palestinian minority from the left-wing Meretz party, resigned from the coalition on Thursday, the second lawmaker to do so in two months.

Ms. Rinawie Zoabi attributed her decision to the treatment of the Arab community in Israel, and its expansion of settlements in the West Bank. She said recent police interventions at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the police assault on mourners at a journalist’s funeral last week were the final straws.

“Again and again, the coalition leaders have preferred to adopt hawkish, hard-line and right-wing positions on important basic issues of unparalleled importance to the general Arab society.” Rinawie Zoabi wrote in a resignation letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

“No more,” she added. “I can not continue to support the existence of a coalition that conspires in this disgraceful manner against the society from which I have come.”

Without Ms. Rinawie Zoabi, 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.

But 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.

Opposition parties also have enough seats to form 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.

The defections could offer a political lifeline to Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who was ousted in June when the current coalition was formed. The eight parties of the coalition overcame profound ideological differences because they shared a desire to remove Mr. Netanyahu, whose refusal to resign despite standing trial for corruption had alienated many of his natural allies on the right.

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 spokesman for Ms. Rinawie-Zoabi said she had not decided whether or not to support a vote to dissolve Parliament.

That would give Mr. Netanyahu another chance to win more seats for his right-wing alliance, giving them a majority in Parliament.

Ms. Rinawie Zoabi’s departure from the coalition is the latest manifestation of the incompatibility of the holding eight constituent parties – a fractious alliance of right-wing, left-wing, secular, religious and Arab groups that joined forces in June after multiple inconclusive elections had left Israel without a state budget or a functional government.

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.

But despite that early optimism, the prominent 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 shot dead in the West Bank during an Israeli raid – and when police attacked mourners carrying her coffin at her funeral two days later.

But while Mr. Bennett managed to persuade Raam to stay in the coalition through these successive crises, he has few means of preventing further defections from its left-wing and Arab members. He is also struggling to prevent further rebellion from the coalition’s right-wing members, who feel he has already boosted Arab society enough.

Last month, a right-wing member of the coalition, Idit Silman, became the first member of government to defect – and there are fears that others may follow, particularly with the administration under pressure from the right to respond more forcefully to a rise in terrorist attacks.

Should new elections be called, Israel could also 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.

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