After weeks of speculation, Israel’s unwieldy coalition government bowed to political pressure yesterday, announcing that it would dissolve itself and call Israel’s fifth election in less than four years.
- At a press conference on Monday evening, prime minister Naftali Bennett and foreign minister Yair Lapid confirmed they intended to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, scheduled in principle for October 25.
- The decision represented an end to weeks of protracted speculation about the government’s viability, following a series of defections and the possibility of an alternative government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
- Five of the coalition’s eight parties – left-wing Meretz, centrist Blue and White, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, right-wing Yamina and Islamist Ra’am – have had MKs defect from the government in the past year.
- Bennett pointed to the coalition’s failure to renew legislation to apply civil law to Israelis living in the West Bank as the immediate catalyst for the decision. Despite supporting the measure ideologically, the right-wing opposition voted against the bill last week in order to destabilise the government. The Knesset’s dissolution will automatically extend the law for a further six months.
- “Unlike the opposition, which turned Israel’s security into a political pawn, I refused to harm Israel’s security for even one day”, Bennett said.
- “We did our utmost to preserve this government”, Bennett continued. “Believe me, no stone was left unturned – for the good of our beautiful country and for you, the citizens of Israel”.
- Israeli Labor leader and transport minister Merav Michaeli tweeted that the coalition government, of which her party had formed a part, had worked to “bring Israel back to its citizens and different parts of our society together”, pledging to “continue to lead Israel back to safety”.
- Meanwhile, Meretz leader and health minister Nitzan Horowitz heralded the government’s “tremendous achievements”, including increasing health funding, improved mental health services, climate action, and progress on women’s and LGBT rights.
- In the interim, foreign minister Yair Lapid will succeed Bennett as interim prime minister, becoming Israel’s most progressive premier since 2009.
The coalition government’s demise offers perhaps a final chance for former prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, it was the defection of 3 of the 7 MKs from Yamina – prime minister Bennett’s own party – in the past year, under intense pressure from Netanyahu, that finally sealed the coalition’s fate. In a statement on Monday evening, Netanyahu hailed the collapse of “the worst government in Israeli history” and promised to replace it with a “broad national government” – perhaps hinting that he will try to appeal to the political centre, after years of dominant control of the right. The development is a further boost to the former prime minister, whose ongoing corruption trial seems increasingly unlikely to result in a guilty verdict.
- The coalition will bring forward a vote to dissolve the Knesset on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Knesset Speaker confirmed on Monday.
- The speedy decision reportedly reflected fears that Netanyahu would attempt to construct an alternative government within the current Knesset from discontented coalition MKs, thus avoiding the need for new elections.
- Following the Knesset’s dissolution, foreign minister Yair Lapid will succeed Bennett as interim prime minister and will continue to hold the position until a new government is formed following elections – a process that could potentially take months or even years, as it did when Netanyahu sat as interim prime minister between 2019–21.
- Bennett is expected to become alternate prime minister – a role Lapid has held until now – as well as having interim responsibility for Iran.
- Given legal and holiday constraints, new elections are expected at the end of October.
Revenge of the moderates
Despite the disappointing development for the anti-Netanyahu camp, there are some reasons for hope for progressives, at least in the short-term. Israeli elections have failed to produce clear government majorities since 2019, allowing interim prime ministers to prolong their tenures for years. As a result, centrist Yair Lapid’s succession to the premiership poses interesting possibilities. Unlike Bennett, Lapid is a supporter of a two-state solution. In February, he made clear his opposition to settlement activity that would harm the prospect of a Palestinian state: “we are not going to build anything that will prevent the possibility of a future two-state solution”. Indeed, as the Jerusalem Post reports, it is possible that Lapid will adopt a more constructive approach towards the settlements question, for example refusing to convene the higher planning council which approves settlement building. With US president Biden due to visit Israel in July, Lapid is “much more likely to make concession to Biden than Bennett would have”, the Post concluded.
If a week is a long time in politics, then nineteen weeks is a political lifetime. The exact result of Israel’s upcoming election will be decided in the time between now and late October. However, an initial poll released on Tuesday suggested that no obvious government would be forthcoming with the 61 seats required to form a majority, with Netanyahu’s bloc winning 59 seats and the Lapid-Bennett bloc projected to win 55.