In an unprecedented move, the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – voted Wednesday night to dissolve itself and launch Israel into new national elections, slated for September 17, less than two months after previous elections on April 9.
At this rate Israel will be without a formal government for most, if not all, of 2019, leaving it in a precarious state. War with Hamas in Gaza is potentially coming this summer, and the Bank of Israel is warning of Israel’s economy slowing down, among other challenges.
Driven by political deadlock, the move is the latest episode of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to keep himself, and the Israeli right-wing, in power.
Netanyahu has three indictments on corruption charges hanging over his head – pending an October hearing. He had hoped a right-wing government would pass a law granting him immunity from the indictments, but there’s little chance of that happening now.
Bibi’s current failure is one of coalition politics. In the 120-seat Knesset, a majority coalition of 61 seats or more is necessary to create the Israeli government. With a 65-seat bloc of right-wing parties elected on April 9, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party with 35 seats, there seemed no alternative to a Netanyahu-led government.
But coalition negotiations kept stalling. Because the right-wing bloc had such a narrow margin for the necessary Knesset majority, smaller parties like the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP), with 5 seats, felt they could pressure Bibi into more extreme political positions and ministerial appointments, which he resisted.
And disagreement between the religious ultra-Orthodox (haredi) parties and Yisrael Beitenu, the secular party of Russian speaking immigrant Jews led by Avigdor Lieberman, proved completely unmanageable.
Lieberman has sat in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox in the past, but at stake is a Knesset bill that would draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli Defense Forces. Many ultra-Orthodox Israelis receive exemptions from the IDF draft that is otherwise mandatory for all Israeli Jews, and Lieberman wants to stop the policy of exemption.
The haredi parties were adamantly opposed to a coalition if Netanyahu supported the bill, while Lieberman wouldn’t join Netanyahu’s coalition unless his bill was passed into law. With neither side willing to compromise, Lieberman kept Yisrael Beitenu’s 5 Knesset seats out of Bibi’s reach, leaving him with a 60-seat coalition and unable to form a government.
Lieberman has singlehandedly brought Netanyahu to his knees while thrusting Israel’s most volatile internal conflict – between secular and religious Israelis – into the spotlight.
Technically, the Knesset didn’t have to dissolve at this point and rush new elections. Under Israeli law, after one member of the Knesset fails to create a governing coalition in 28 days with a maximum 14-day extension, the president can give another MK the chance to do so.
Next in line after Bibi was former chief of staff Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, and Netanyahu’s main rival in the April 9 elections.
Even if Gantz had failed to make a coalition, 61 MKs could have petitioned Israel’s president to let Bibi try again. But instead of giving Gantz the opportunity to form a centrist government without the right-wing, Bibi preferred to go to elections.
Now the political chaos could open the door to Netanyahu’s nightmare: a different prime minister and an Israeli government that isn’t so right-wing.
But there’s no predicting the outcome for Israel until the new round of elections on Sept. 17, and Netanyahu has been known to find his way out of difficult political situations before.