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Israel to hold fresh elections as Knesset votes to dissolve itself

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sits before a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on 29 May 2019, at the Knesset in Jerusalem. [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) sits before a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset (Israeli parliament) on 29 May 2019, at the Knesset in Jerusalem. [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images]

In an unprecedented move, Israel’s Knesset has voted to dissolve itself, sending the country to the polls for the second time in a year.

Exactly 50 days after Israel held a general election on 9 April, and just less than a month after the 21st Knesset was officially sworn in, the parliament today voted to dissolve itself with a 74 to 45 majority, thereby triggering fresh elections.

The move comes after weeks of fraught coalition talks in which re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to form a working government. Netanyahu was initially given one month to conduct negotiations, but was granted a two week extension from Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, after discussions proved difficult.

The deadline for this extension expired tonight at midnight local time [21:00 GMT, 22:00 BST].

Despite numerous last-minute attempts to reach out to potential coalition partners, each has remained steadfast in their demands, leaving Netanyahu unable to form a government within the allotted time. As a result, Israel is slated to go to the polls in September, marking the first time in its 71-year history that elections will be held twice in one year.

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Knesset dissolution

The Knesset vote today pitted Netanyahu’s coalition hopefuls and the de facto opposition against one another, with Knesset Members (MKs) from the prime minister’s Likud party and its allies voting in favour of dissolution. Meanwhile MKs from the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance – which finished with the same number of seats as Likud in April’s general election but, since Netanyahu held the position of incumbent, was not tasked with forming the government – sought to prevent new elections.

Blue and White believed that it should be given the opportunity to form a government, as mandated by Israeli election law. Though it is unlikely that the alliance’s leader, ex-army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, will be able to rally enough support from the left-wing, centrist and Arab-dominated parties to form a coalition, he has argued he should be given the opportunity to try.

Left-wing parties supported Blue and White’s position, with Chairwoman of Meretz Tamar Zandberg arguing that today’s vote should be delayed beyond the midnight deadline, thus giving Rivlin time to name a new candidate to form the government. Zandberg explained: “We’re prepared for a filibuster [an attempt to delay a vote by extending the debate] of at least three days, which is the maximum amount of time for the president to task another Knesset member with forming a government.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his wife Sara (R) cast their votes during Israel's parliamentary elections at Paula Ben Gurion School in Jerusalem, on 9 April 2019 [Haim Zach/GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and his wife Sara (R) cast their votes during Israel’s parliamentary elections at Paula Ben Gurion School in Jerusalem, on 9 April 2019 [Haim Zach/GPO/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

In a last minute attempt to catch the Likud party off-guard, the filibuster was eventually called off, with the opposition parties giving up their right to deliver speeches opposing the bill. The parties had hoped that, by cutting the debate short, the vote would be pushed forward before it garnered support from enough MKs to pass.

Interestingly, the predominantly Arab-Israeli alliances – Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad – today seemed to be split on whether to support the Knesset’s dissolution. Hadash-Ta’al, the bigger of the two factions, abstained from the first reading of the bill, with party number two Ahmad Tibi saying: “Our position hasn’t changed, because we don’t want to be pawns in the game of spins Netanyahu and [Likud MK] Miki Zohar are leading. It’s important for us that Netanyahu go to the president and say ‘I’ve failed’.”

Meanwhile, Ra’am-Balad Chair Mansour Abbas said that his alliance would support dissolving the Knesset, saying that “if there would be a realistic alternative for another Knesset member to form a government, we’ll reconsider our decision to support the bill to dissolve the Knesset”. Abbas’ number two, Mtanes Shehadeh, added that the party “wouldn’t miss a chance to take down Netanyahu’s government”.

In tonight’s final vote, all ten Arab-Israeli Knesset members voted in favour of dissolving the Knesset.

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Netanyahu fails to form coalition

Today represented the final chance for Netanyahu to secure an agreement with his potential coalition partners, a task in which he has ultimately failed.

Netanyahu had hoped that his previous Knesset partners would re-join a new coalition: the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ); the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP); Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party; and centrist Kulanu party. With the support for these parties, the prime minister would form a 66-seat ruling coalition, five seats over the 61 needed to form a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset.

However, historic divisions between these parties have resurfaced during coalition negotiations and, seemingly, this time proved insurmountable. The biggest stumbling block has been former Defence Secretary Lieberman’s unyielding demand to pass the so-called Haredi draft law, a bill which seeks to conscript ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli army, a duty from which they are currently exempt.

Holding five seats in the Knesset – the exact amount that stands between Netanyahu and a majority government – Lieberman has refused to back down or dilute his demands. Today he looked unlikely to alter this course, taking to social media this morning to defend his position.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Lieberman wrote: “Even I, who have been in Israeli politics for many years and thought I had seen everything, have been astounded over the past two days by the amount of pressure, paranoia and speculation I have been exposed to.”

“I am not against the ultra-Orthodox public,” Lieberman continued, “I am for the State of Israel, I am for a Jewish state, but I am against a State of Halacha (Jewish religious law),” a criticism he has repeatedly used against the ultra-Orthodox parties and their attempts to pass laws benefiting the Haredi community.

READ: Lieberman just snatched Netanyahu’s election victory

He went on: “I am not a salesman nor am I a blackmailer [but] we have no intention of giving up our principles and commitments to our voters. The draft law is not a caprice, nor ego or revenge, but a cornerstone of our coherent system. The proposal to hand over all the (draft) targets and the expiry date of the law for the government to decide upon is really like putting makeup on a stuffed animals. Therefore, we are sticking with our proposal – second and third Knesset readings for the draft law in its original version […] there is no alternative.”

Although Netanyahu tonight made a final attempt to appeal to Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties to bridge the gap over the Haredi draft law, at the eleventh hour both sides announced their rejection of the prime minister’s proposal. The move seems to have angered UTJ in the process, with sources from within the party threatening that it “may support another candidate from the Likud to form the government”.

New elections

Given Lieberman’s intransigence, Israel is now heading for its second general election this year. The vote has been slated for 17 September – little over five months after the country went to the polls in April.

Reactions to the prospect have been mixed, with both the electorate and MKs weary of the political infighting and not yet recovered from the last election’s campaign trail.

Concerns about the financial cost of new elections have also been raised. An official from Israel’s Finance Minister yesterday said that holding fresh elections could cost the country 475 million shekels ($131 million), “a budgetary source that does not exist” given the fact that Israel is “currently in a deficit”.

Israel’s political parties have also yet to pay back the Knesset-backed loans for April’s election, which currently amount to over 62 million shekels ($17 million) in debt. To add to this, Israeli law currently states that a party cannot take out a new loan if they have not paid the previous one. Parties have therefore been forced to request that payment of the original loans be delayed until after the election in September.

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Each party has already begun to declare its position, with some seeking to join Likud rather than work as its ally. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has reportedly agreed to merge his Kulanu party with Likud, reneging on a post-election promise that his party would remain independent.

Likud’s governing secretariat yesterday approved the merger, reserving the number five slot on the party slate for Kahlon. The Blue and White alliance slammed Kahlon for the move, sending scores of protesters to his Haifa home who shouted that the finance minister was “spineless”.

After almost losing, Benjamin Netanyahu comes 1st in 2019 Israeli election - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

After almost losing, Benjamin Netanyahu comes 1st in 2019 Israeli election – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The merger could give Likud an extra four seats, increasing its mandate to 39 or 40 seats. This would make Likud by far the biggest party in September’s election, effectively ensuring that it will form the next government. Even if the Blue and White alliance remains united – which is far from guaranteed given rumours of discord between its two factions, Gantz’s Israel Resilience (Hosen L’Yisrael) party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party – it is highly unlikely it will garner more than 40 seats to challenge Likud.

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There are also rumours that outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked will join the Likud party. Shaked and long-time ally, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, broke away from the Jewish Home party ahead of the April election, forming the New Right (Hayemin HeHadash) party to appeal to Israel’s religious-Zionist community. Though the party was expected to do well, it suffered a disastrous defeat on 9 April, failing to cross the 3.25 per cent minimum vote threshold needed to win seats in the Knesset.

Israel’s public broadcaster Kan this morning cited unnamed Likud officials as saying that Netanyahu is considering reserving a top slate position for Shaked in the hope of bringing her right-wing supporters into the fold. The deal is not yet confirmed, with a spokesperson for Netanyahu saying that no decision has been made and with Shaked refusing to respond to Kan’s report.

Shaked was also seen meeting with New Right co-founder Bennett this afternoon, leading to speculation that the pair may be planning a comeback ahead of September’s election.

Whether Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party will be punished at the polls for driving the country to fresh elections, or whether his secularist, hawkish support base will rally behind his refusal to compromise on key principles, remains to be seen.

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