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Can a new government be put in place? An explainer

In the wake of the announcement by MK Idit Silman that she no longer supports the current government, what developments can we expect to see in the near future?

The possibility of replacing or toppling the government by means of a no-confidence motion, without once again going to the polls, is a basic feature of all parliamentary governments, including Israel’s. However, as most recently amended in 2014, the no-confidence mechanism in this country, makes this very challenging. A no-confidence motion requires that 61 Knesset members declare their support for an alternative government, including naming the Prime Minister, the other ministers, and its basic guidelines. This “constructive no-confidence” mechanism is among the most rigid in the world, and makes the establishment of an alternative Government almost impossible.

Today, following Silman’s declaration that she no longer supports the Government, the opposition numbers 60 MKs, which means that it cannot win on a no-confidence motion, which as noted, requires 61 votes to pass. If another “deserter” can be lured from Yamina, giving the opposition 61 members, all 61 would have to agree on the composition of the alternative government; but it is quite implausible that the Joint List and the right-wing bloc could find common ground on this. What could change the picture is if one of the current coalition parties decided to support an alternative government. For instance, if Blue White took that route, then, along with the Likud, the Religious Zionist party, the ultra-Orthodox factions, and the two Yamina defectors, such a government would have the support of 62 MKs and could be put in place by means of a no-confidence vote.

Israel did not always have such a rigorous no-confidence requirement. Until the institution of direct elections of the prime minister in the 1990s, a simple majority vote in the Knesset (and not a majority of the entire house) could bring down the government (without having to propose a replacement). That is how the Shamir Government fell in 1990, when 60 MKs voted no-confidence, and only 55 opposed the motion.

Is it possible to hold early elections for the Knesset? How would that work?

According to the Basic Law: The Knesset, passage of a law to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections requires the support of 61 MKs. At present, this possibility seems somewhat more likely: the opposition already includes 60 members. If all of them vote to dissolve the Knesset, only one more defector from a coalition party would be needed.

In addition, the Knesset is dissolved automatically if it fails to pass the State Budget by March 31 of the budget year. The 2022 budget has already been approved, so the earliest date for this scenario is March 31, 2023: if the 2023 State Budget has not been passed by then, the Knesset will be dissolved and new elections held.

It should be emphasized that if the Knesset is dissolved, there would also be a possibility of a rotation in the Prime Minister’s office, with Alternate Prime Minister Lapid replacing Naftali Bennett. Under the Basic Law: The Government, the rotation takes effect automatically if the Knesset is dissolved after failing to pass the State Budget, as well as if the Knesset is dissolved with the support of at least two MKs affiliated with Bennett’s bloc within the Government (Yamina and New Hope) as long as these MKs supported the government when it was established. Chikli opposed the current government from the beginning, but Silman supported it. So if Silman and another MK from Yemina or New Hope (e.g. Nir Orbach or Ayelet Shaked) vote to dissolve the Knesset, Lapid would take over from Bennett. These rules were instituted to deter the Prime Minister and his faction from dissolving the Knesset before the date set for the rotation to take effect.

Can the current government continue to function?

The Government is now a minority government—one supported by a coalition that lacks a parliamentary majority.

On the one hand, minority governments are not that infrequent and not necessarily a bad thing. In some advanced democracies, most governments do not have a parliamentary majority; this includes Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and Norway. Today, all of them have minority governments, as do Kenya, Croatia, and Slovenia. Empirical studies have found that if to judge by the criterion of stability, they may function just as well as majority Governments, especially those that depend on broad coalitions, like most Israeli governments over the years.

On the other hand, minority governments are not common in Israel, and have usually survived for only a short time after a faction has bolted the coalition (the exception is the Peres government created in 1995 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which from the start- rested on only 59 MKs, but was supported from the outside by two Arab parties). For this reason, the public may view a minority government as lacking legitimacy.

What is more, the specific features of the now-minority government can be expected to make its life very difficult. For example, most minority governments in other countries, enjoy the outside support of parties that are not members of the coalition, but support it in parliamentary votes (on a regular or ad hoc basis), in return for various benefits and achievements. It is difficult to envision this happening to the present government. Without the outside support of factions or MKs, the government will not be able to pass legislation and will be hard-pressed to function and promote its policy agenda.

The current minority government is already fragmented with regard to the number and identity of its component parties. Some factions and MKs have challenged it in the past and can be expected to continue to do so now (for example, Eli Avidar and some of the Ra’am MKs). This would certainly make for a bumpy journey. By contrast, minority governments in other countries, are generally more cohesive, and composed of a small number of parties that are ideologically compatible.

The bottom line is that the present minority government will be hard pressed to mobilize a majority in the Knesset for its program, and will not enjoy the advantages of unity and solidarity that its counterparts elsewhere can draw on.

What are Silman’s and Chikli’s status in Yamina now?

At present, on paper- Chikli and Silman are part of the Yamina faction, even if in practice they are operating independently.

As for the future, there are several possibilities:

·         They can continue to be members of the faction. We should remember that this has been Chikli’s status for almost a year since the government took office, even though he does not support it and acts independently.

·         Yamina could ask the Knesset House Committee to declare that the two MKs’ are “defectors.” If the Committee does so, Chikli and Silman would become “single Knesset members,” with major ramifications for their status. (1) They would not be allowed to set up a new faction or join an existing one in the current Knesset, which means that they would not receive regular party funding and would be ineligible to employ various parliamentary tools, such as submitting a no-confidence motion. (But they could still submit parliamentary questions or serve on Knesset committees as part of the quota allotted to the Likud or another opposition party.) (2) For the duration of the current Knesset, they could not be appointed as ministers or deputy ministers. (3) Perhaps most important, in the next Knesset election they could not run on the list of any party that is a member of the current Knesset. This means they could not be included on the list of the Likud or the factions that make up the Religious Zionist Party.

However, none of these sanctions would be imposed on them if they resigned from the Knesset immediately after being declared defectors.

·         Chikli and/or Silman could themselves decide to quit Yamina, and find themselves subject to the sanctions enumerated above. This seems unlikely.

·         Chikli and Silman could recruit another defector from Yamina and could then officially split the faction, under the rule that this is permitted if at least a third of a faction (Yamina has 7 members) leave it. Unlike defectors, they would escape all these sanctions (except for one: they would not receive regular party funding, because of the rule that when a party splits in the first two years of a Knesset’s term of office, the new faction is not entitled to it; Yamina would continue to receive the funds for seven MKs).

About the Author
Dr. Assaf Shapira is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy.
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