By Charles Summers

Staff Writer

For Mitzpeh


The Knesset building in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The ruling coalition in Israel lost its governing majority Wednesday morning, when Idit Silman, a legislator from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s party, resigned from the government citing her unwillingness to “abet the harming of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”

Silman announced her defection after a feud between her and another member of the government, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, over Horowitz’s support for a 2020 Israeli Supreme Court ruling. This ruling has ordered the government to allow individuals to bring chametz, food forbidden for Jews to eat over Passover, into hospitals for the duration of the 8-day holiday. The court ruling had been swept under the rug by Israel’s past and current governments until Horowitz sent a letter to hospital administrators in late March, instructing them to abide by the court’s decision.

Dennis Dayan, a freshman computer science major at this university, has a sister working as a journalist in Israel, so he tries to stay informed on Israel’s current events. He saw the news about the coalition break in a WhatsApp group chat. “My first thought was, ‘Agh, not this again,’” Dayan said.

If the current government does indeed collapse, it would trigger a new election cycle. Israel has held four elections since 2019 due to governmental instability.

The issue of chametz in hospitals may appear to be minor, but the dispute is part of a larger discussion in Israeli society about the role of religion and governance. “The United States is a secular country,” Dayan added. “And Israel is a Jewish state, so there’s going to be a lot of stark differences in culture, religion and general law.”

Molly Zatman, a sophomore journalism major and Middle East studies minor, heard about the news from a family member in Israel. “I wasn’t super surprised because I knew the majority was by a pretty slim margin,” she said. “I think the chametz issue definitely reflects a larger splinter in Israeli politics between the secular and religious.”

Although the chametz dispute coincided with Silman’s decision to leave, it is far from the only reason she resigned. Professor Ilai Saltzman, a visiting lecturer in UMD’s Israel Studies department, speculated that her stipulations with the government were much broader.

“I don’t think it was just a chametz issue, this was the ‘last straw’ so to speak, but it’s been an ongoing thing,” said Saltzman. “Especially for somebody coming from the religious Zionist circles, there’s an embedded, omnipresent pressure that is there.”

Silman’s resignation caught many by surprise given her role as the coalition’s de facto whip. “This is somebody who actually ran the coalition, in the Knesset, so she was responsible,” said Saltzman. “Nobody thought that Silman would be the one to go first.”

Shmulik Silman, the parliamentarian’s husband, has been in contact with the chairman of the Religious Zionist Party in opposition, Bezalel Smotrich, since the new government was formed in June 2021. The direct line of communication between the Silman home and a key player in the opposition likely played an important role in Idit’s decision.

“There was some reporting that she was offered, in return for this defection, to be the next Minister of Health,” said Saltzman. “This is a very lucrative incentive from her perspective. It all depends, of course, on whether Netanyahu will be able to form a government and secondly, perhaps more important, whether he keeps his promise.”

Bennett was hesitant to criticize Silman, a member of his party, for her decision to resign. “Idit suffered persecution for months, verbal harassment at the worst level,” he said. “She described to me the threats to the workplace of her husband and the Bnei Akiva (youth group) of her kids. In the end she broke.”

The fate of the government is currently unclear. Since its inception, the current government coalition has been unstable because of its slim majority and unprecedented number of member parties, which range from the Islamist Ra’am to the national-conservative Yamina. To thwart a vote to disperse the Knesset, triggering new elections, the coalition will either have to convince Silman to return or depend upon the support of the Joint List, an alliance of three Arab parties in the opposition.

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh said that his faction “will not be a lifeline for Bennett and Shaked,” and surmised that Israel will probably be going back to the polls. It is possible that the factions on the list will split from this position.

In Israel, a vote of no confidence must be constructive, meaning an alternative government must exist to replace the one being voted out. The opposition, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would need a governing majority for a vote of no confidence, which it is highly unlikely to attain without new elections.

“I think that the more probable scenario is elections,” Saltzman said. “But even for that, you’ll have to see, because there are several parties that are not interested in going to elections because the fear is that if they do go, they will be eliminated — so there’s a certain disconnect between the ideological element and the political necessity.”


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