Israel to dissolve parliament and call 5th election in 3 years
JERUSALEM — Israel’s weakened coalition government announced on Monday that it would dissolve parliament and call new elections, paving the way for a possible return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or another period of protracted political stalemate. .
The election will be Israel’s fifth in three years, and it will put the polarizing Netanyahu, who has been opposition leader for a year, back at the center of the political universe.
“I think the winds have changed. I feel it,” Netanyahu said.
The previous four elections, which focused on Netanyahu’s ability to govern while facing a corruption investigation, ended in stalemate. While opinion polls project Netanyahu, who is currently judged, as the frontrunner, it is far from certain that his Likud party can secure the parliamentary majority required to form a new government.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former ally and aide to Netanyahu, formed his government a year ago with the aim of stopping the endless cycle of elections. But the fragile coalition government, which includes parties from all political stripes, lost its majority earlier this year and has faced rebellions from various lawmakers in recent weeks.
Announcing his intention to dissolve the government at a nationally televised press conference, Bennett said he had made “the right decision” under difficult circumstances.
“Together we lifted Israel out of the pit. We have accomplished a lot this year. Above all, we have brought to the fore the values of fairness and trust,” Bennett said, alongside his main partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. “We have moved to a culture of ‘we’, ‘together’.”
As part of their coalition deal, Lapid, who leads the large centrist Yesh Atid party, now becomes interim prime minister until elections, in which he is expected to be Netanyahu’s main rival.
Alongside Bennett, he thanked his partner for his hard work and for putting the country ahead of his personal interests.
“Even if we go to an election in a few months, our challenges as a state cannot wait,” Lapid said. “What we need to do today is return to the concept of Israeli unity. Not letting the dark forces tear us apart from within.
Bennett’s coalition included a wide range of parties, from pacifist factions that support an end to Israel’s occupation of lands captured in 1967 and claimed by Palestinians, to hardliners that oppose a Palestinian state.
Many parties had little in common beyond a shared animosity toward Netanyahu. Often described as a political “experiment”, the coalition made history by becoming the first to include an Arab party.
Bennett listed his government’s achievements, including passing a national budget for the first time in three years and steering the country through two waves of coronavirus without imposing a lockdown. Under his watch, Israel’s tense border with the Gaza Strip has remained largely calm, though tensions with Palestinians have escalated in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Its Arab partner, the Islamic Ra’am party, has won unprecedented budgets to fight poverty, neglect and discrimination in the Arab sector of Israel.
Despite its successes, the coalition ultimately fell apart, largely because several members of Bennett’s own hardline party objected to what they perceived to be his pragmatism and moderation.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, stoked opposition by accusing Bennett of cooperating with “supporters of terrorism” — a reference to his Arab coalition partners. A Netanyahu supporter was arrested last month on suspicion of mailing death threats and shootings at Bennett’s family.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 20% of the country’s population, but are often considered a fifth column and have never been part of a coalition before. Although Netanyahu himself also courted the same Islamist party last year, the criticism seemed to make some hardliners in Bennett’s coalition uncomfortable.
The final blow to the government was the imminent expiration of a law granting Israeli settlers in the West Bank special legal status.
The law underpins separate legal systems for Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank, a situation that three prominent human rights groups say amounts to apartheid. Israel rejects this allegation as an attack on its legitimacy.
Parliament was due to extend the law earlier this month, as it has done for 55 years. But the radical opposition, made up largely of settler supporters, paradoxically voted against the bill in order to embarrass Bennett. Dovish members of the coalition who normally oppose settlements voted in favor in hopes of keeping the government afloat.
But a handful of coalition members, including Arab lawmakers as well as hardline nationalists, abstained or voted with the opposition to defeat the bill and cause the coalition to break up.
Bennett, a former settler leader, said there would have been “serious security perils and constitutional chaos” if he had allowed the law to expire at the end of the month. “I couldn’t let that happen,” he said.
Bennett and Lapid will now introduce a bill to dissolve parliament in the coming days. Once that passes, the country will be heading for elections, most likely in October.
The Settlers Act remains in effect and will not expire if the government collapses.
Netanyahu described the impending dissolution of parliament as “good news” for millions of Israelis, and said he would form “a broad nationalist Likud-led government” after the next election.
But he also pledged to try to form an alternative government ahead of the parliamentary vote by trying to persuade some of his opponents to support him. The odds of that seem slim, given that their past never served under Netanyahu during his trial.
“It is necessary to rehabilitate the State of Israel, and we have the capacity to do so,” Netanyahu said.
The disbandment threatened to overshadow a visit by President Joe Biden scheduled for next month. A statement released by Biden’s National Security Council said he “looks forward to the visit.”
Israel has held four inconclusive elections between 2019 and 2021 that were largely referendums on Netanyahu’s ability to rule while he was on trial for corruption. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
Opinion polls have predicted that Netanyahu’s hardline Likud will once again emerge as the largest single party. But it remains unclear whether he would be able to muster the required support from a majority of lawmakers to form a new government.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said Monday’s developments were “a clear indication that Israel’s worst political crisis did not end when this government was sworn in.”
“While the Bennett-Lapid government has undoubtedly played an important role in passing a budget and advancing other important legislation, this ongoing crisis will not end until Israeli leaders put their differences policies aside and enacted long-awaited electoral and constitutional reforms. .”
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.