Storming the Knesset? Israel's tentative new government and the protesters who oppose it

What happens next? Will Israel see a January 6 style attempt to storm the Knesset when the new coalition faces its confidence vote?

For the first time in more than twelve years, a coalition government has been agreed in Israel that would replace Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

The “change coalition”, as it calls itself, is pretty much the rainbow coalition I wrote about here, but name “change coalition” seems to have caught on. Shame. Rainbows are cool.

For several weeks, Israel faced the bizarre prospect of a bloc of parties of the centre, left and right, assembled by centrist leader Yair Lapid, asking right-wing leader Naftali Bennett to join and become Prime Minister. Bennett took his time, said maybe, then no, and eventually yes. Then it took several more days for Bennett to convince the remaining five members of his party caucus (it was six, but one had already defected) to join him.

Oh, and the Islamic Shura Council of the Islamic Movement’s southern branch had to give its approval too, allowing Ra’am, the United Arab List Party, to join the coalition too. This is the first time an Arab party has been a part of a coalition government in Israel since the 1970s, and the first time that the coalition has relied on those seats for its majority.

Add all of this up, and you get to 61 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-member parliament. That’s a majority, but a tiny one.

Will it actually happen?

In order for this new coalition to actually be seated and replace the old government, it needs to win a vote by a simple majority. 61-59 is enough.

At least one of the members of Bennett’s Yemina party, Nir Orbach, is wobbling. He’s not so sure he’s going to vote for the change coalition after all. If he outright votes against it, that could be a 60-60 tie and Netanyahu will remain prime minister. A new election, Israel’s fifth in less than three years, would likely follow.

Except that some of the other Arab parties, parties that didn’t join the coalition, have indicated that they might abstain or even vote in favour of the change coalition. That, in theory, gives the change coalition a comfortable buffer of votes: Even if the coalition has two defections, a 59-56 vote with five abstentions is still a win.

Or not. Because a bunch of the right-wing members of the change coalition have said that they wouldn’t support their own government if it has to rely on the votes – or even the abstentions – of the other Arab parties to come into being. I don’t know if this line will hold if it comes to that, but things remain very delicate.

When will it happen?

The next argument is over when the vote will be. Traditionally, a vote on a coalition happens very quickly after the deals are signed. This time, the Speaker of the Knesset is a Likud member, and they want to delay the vote as long as possible. The longer the wait, the more chance of it all falling apart, or of pressure from Netanyahu to succeed in pulling away more defectors.

The law says that when a new government is ready to be formed,

“the Speaker of the Knesset shall notify the Knesset thereof, and set a sitting for the purpose of forming the Government, within seven days from the day of the notification.”

Does the Speaker have to hold a sitting within seven days, or set a sitting within seven days? Likud wanted to push the vote until the week after next, presumably using the latter logic.

So the change coalition are trying replace the Speaker in an attempt to speed things up. But it might not be needed, as it looks like the vote will be held this coming Wednesday, June 9, after all. The swearing-in would then take place on June 10 if the vote actually passes. Which, again, it might not.

The streets

Meanwhile, it’s nasty out there. On Wednesday night as a deal was reached, pro-Netanyahu protesters burnt posters of Naftali Bennett and his deputy Ayelet Shaked, cursing them and calling them traitors.

Activists have also been holding aggressive rallies outside the private homes of Bennett, Shaked, possible waverer Nir Orbach and others. These protests aren’t just grassroots, either; Likud Knesset members have attended, and Yair Netanyahu, son of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, got himself suspended by Facebook and Twitter tonight for sharing Orbach’s home address publicly while calling for protesters to go there.

Storming the Knesset?

Ever since the election, the Knesset Guard has trained for the possibility of a January 6 style attempt to storm the Knesset on the day of a vote to seat a new government.

January 6 happened first and foremost because Trump himself called for a huge rally in DC on that date, and a march on the Capitol. So far, no such calls have been made by Netanyahu himself (though, as noted, his son has been drumming up protests).

Unless there is a critical mass of many thousands of protesters, I don’t expect any Jan 6 type attempt by masses of people to enter the Knesset building illegally. That doesn’t mean nothing will happen; perhaps a small number of protesters will try to disrupt the proceedings, but they’ll have gone through security to get inside in the first place.

If there is a critical mass, say five thousand protesters or more, then things could get dicier. As long as the vote happens during daylight it will still be ok. If thousands are there at night, all bets are off.

The real worry

Hopefully, whatever happens with the change coalition, it will pass without political violence. But the real concern isn’t a crowd storming the Knesset; it’s a small mob beating up a coalition member walking around at night, or a Molotov cocktail through a window of a family home. Unfortunately, those scenarios seem very plausible.

The language on the pro-Netanyahu Right is hysterical. The change coalition is being presented as the end of Israel, the end of the Jewish people, the end of Western civilisation. People on the Right are scared, angry and are being told that if this government is sworn in, it’s all over.

It’s a toxic mixture. And as long as there’s the slimmest hope that the pressure on the change bloc’s members (or, for that matter, their families) might convince or scare off even one member, it will continue.

Naftali Bennett, as PM-designate, has a protection team from the Shin Bet security service. Some other coalition members have heightened police protection too. I worry they’ll need it.

My profile of Prime-Minister designate, Naftali Bennett, appears in this week’s Spectator Magazine. The article went to print on Wednesday and the magazine came out Thursday, which meant if the change coalition hadn’t reached an agreement by Wednesday night deadline, the article would have been out of date by the time it was published. Luckily for me, it all worked out.