CAIRO – A second lawmaker on Thursday left Israel’s governing coalition, giving the opposition a narrow majority of two seats in parliament and raising the possibility of a fifth election in three years.
While the move won’t necessarily topple the current government, a fractured coalition of parties with clashing agendas, the loss of her majority underscores instability and the risk that a divisive issue could topple her.
The government has come under intense pressure from the recent escalation of tensions between the Israeli authorities and the Palestinians – including clashes at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, terrorist attacks in Israel and a severe 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 Israel’s Arab community, which in particular, she cited recent police interventions in the Aqsa. Mosque in Jerusalem and the police attack on mourners at the funeral of a Palestinian journalist last week.
Last month, a right-wing coalition member resigned. That lawmaker, Idit Silman, said the government no longer reflected its right-wing and religious values.
The governing coalition, the most diverse in Israel’s history, came together a year ago over one issue: a shared desire to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and break a political deadlock that had forced Israel into four consecutive elections.
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 vulnerable from the start.
The defection could provide a political lifeline for Mr Netanyahu, who now heads the opposition in parliament.
The defection of Ms Rinawie Zoabi means opposition lawmakers now hold 61 of the 120 seats in parliament, enough to vote to dissolve the body and call new elections, the fifth since April 2019.
Opposition parties also have enough seats to create their own new coalition government without going to elections. But they are divided and may not agree on a candidate for prime minister, making new elections more likely.
As a leftist, Ms. Rinawie Zoabi is not expected to support a Netanyahu-led government. But she could join the opposition next week to vote in new elections.
A new election would give Netanyahu another chance to win more seats for his right-wing alliance and a majority in parliament.
Ms Rinawie-Zoabi said she had not decided whether she would support a vote to dissolve parliament, but that her decision to leave the coalition was “final”.
“What happened in Al Aqsa this past month during Ramadan and especially what happened to the terrible images we saw at the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera’s Palestinian correspondent – this is something that broke my heart and I can’t be part of this coalition,” she said in an interview.
But she left open the possibility to vote with the government from outside.
Even without her, the government could survive with a minority in parliament until March 2023, when it would need a majority to pass a new budget. As Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir each led minority governments for extended periods, including when Rabin negotiated the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
The current coalition could also try to entice opposition members to join the government by restoring its majority.
The coalition was cohesive enough to pass a new budget, Israel’s first in more than three years. It also made important administrative appointments and deepened Israel’s emerging relations with key Arab states.
At the founding, Ms. Rinawie Zoabi said she had hoped the government would take “a new path of equality and respect” between Jewish and Arab Israelis. As a first for Israel, the coalition included an independent Arab party, Raam, while an Arab was appointed a minister for only the third time in Israeli history.
Despite that early optimism, members of government regularly clashed over the rights of Israel’s Arab minority and settlement policy in the occupied West Bank.
Tensions came to a head during the recent holy month of Ramadan, when Israeli police regularly clashed with Palestinian stone throwers at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a site sacred to Muslims and Jews alike. 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 police attacked mourners carrying her coffin at her funeral two days later.
The clashes were an immediate test for the government last month when the Arab party, Raam, suspended its participation in the coalition in protest of police crackdowns at the Aqsa mosque.
A crisis was narrowly averted last week when the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, rejoined the coalition, saying it would be better for Israel’s Arab citizens if his party remained in government.
But Mr. Bennett is walking a political tightrope in a highly polarized Israeli society. He has few resources to prevent further defections of the left-wing and Arab members of the government, and struggles to prevent further rebellion from the right-wing coalition members.
With the government under pressure from the right to respond more vigorously 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, Foreign Secretary Lapid could take over from Mr Bennett in the event of snap elections, depending on how the government collapses.
That could put Mr Lapid, a centrist former broadcaster, in charge for at least several months, through an election campaign and the protracted coalition negotiations that are most likely to follow.
Carol Sutherland contributed from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.