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Explained | Why is Israel set to hold a fifth national election in three years?

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid give a statement at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, June 20, 2022.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid give a statement at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, June 20, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet announced on June 20 that he would be moving a bill to dissolve his coalition government, a year after taking office, consequently sending the country to a fresh round of national elections, the fifth one in three years.

Mr. Bennett would be handing the premiership over to his coalition ally and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid next week, who would remain the caretaker Prime Minister until a new government is formed post the elections, expected to be held in October.

As per a Cabinet Minister’s statement on Tuesday, June 21, the outgoing coalition ​​that ended the 12-year-term of Israel’s longest-ruling former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 12 months ago, would fast-track a Bill this week to dissolve the Parliament, known as the Knesset.

What triggered this?

The fragile eight-party coalition, which was already functioning on just enough seats to classify as a majority (61) in the 120-member Knesset, was thrown into disarray when a lawmaker from Prime Minister Bennett’s religious-nationalist Yamina party quit the coalition in April, effectively leaving it without a majority.

Yamina legislator Idit Silman had resigned as she was opposed to the distribution of leavened bread and food articles in public hospitals— in breach of religious tradition during the Jewish Passover holiday.

Even before this, during the one year of its existence, the coalition was divided on a host of policy issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and conflicting ideologies on the question of the state versus religion.

Tensions came to a head earlier this month when the government, due to internal disagreements and the Opposition, could not secure the required numbers in the parliament to renew a set of regulations that make Israeli laws applicable to Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. All previous governments in Israel have routinely renewed these laws over the past 55 years.

This time, however, the hard-line opposition, which supports the Jewish occupation, ironically voted against the renewal of the laws, as it was against Mr. Bennett’s united eight-party coalition. Some lawmakers within the coalition either abstained or voted against the renewal.

While announcing that he would be fast-tracking the Bill to dissolve the parliament, Mr. Bennett said he was keeping Israel’s interests first, not wanting the Jewish settlersto find themselves under the same military rule as millions of Palestinians because of political infighting.

The legislation would be automatically renewed if the decision to dissolve the Knesset is passed before the law expires at the end of the month.

How did this coalition come to be?

After the March 2021 national election in Israel, the unconventional and ideologically divided bloc of eight parties, comprising everyone on the political spectrum including hard-right, liberal, and Arab parties, had come together in June last year intending to oust Mr. Netanyahu, who was and still is on trial for corruption charges.

After no single political party reached the majority mark of 61 seats in the Knesset, the eight parties together had just enough seats to secure a majority. Observers felt it would be difficult for the coalition to stick together and function as a government as they were divided on major policy issues and united only by their disdain for the country's longest-serving Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu.

Current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s centre-left party Yesh Atid, with 17 seats, was the second-largest bloc in the Knesset after Mr. Netenyahu’s far-right Likud party. Mr. Lapid decided to cobble an alliance with seven unlikely partners.

Despite having just 7 MKs (Members of Knesset), Mr. Bennett’s ultra-nationalist Yamina party became the kingmaker as he agreed to ally with Mr. Lapid’s centre-left party instead of his traditional allies on the religious right.

A power-sharing agreement would see Mr. Bennett take charge as Prime Minister for half of the government’s term. The politician, who is opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, became the first Israeli leader to form a government with support from the ideologically opposite Arab Ra’am party (4 MKs).

Current Defence Minister and former army chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party had tied up with his rival Mr. Netanyahu to form the government in 2020, shifted his support to the “change” coalition in 2021.

Other allies included the centre-right New Hope (6 MKs) party; centre-left Meretz (6MKs) and Labour (7 MKs); and secular-right Yisrael Beiteinu (7 MKs).

Despite having a fragile majority, the coalition did manage to pass a national budget during its term, unlike the governments formed after the last four elections. While announcing the potential dissolution of his government, Mr. Bennett listed its achievements such as leading the country through two waves of the pandemic without imposing a lockdown. He stated that Israel’s tense border with the Gaza Strip remained largely calm, despite tensions with the Palestinians that escalated in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. He also hailed Israel’s strengthened bipartisan standing in the United States and better ties with Arab countries.

Why did the last four elections happen?

The fragmented nature of Israel’s political system, with parties based on social identities, has ensured that no party had ever achieved a majority on its own. The series of elections from 2019 to the one in March last year, took place due to parties reconfiguring coalitions to oust Mr. Nentanyahu, who was, in turn, stubborn in his attempts to stitch together a coalition, ensuring his position in power.

Held in April 2019, the first of the four elections was widely seen in Israel as a referendum aboutMr. Netanyahu’s character and record, as he faced allegations of corruption. Mr. Netanyahu and his main challenger Mr Gantz both claimed victory in that election. The inconclusive results and the failure of both politicians to form an alliance led to another election in September of that year.

Another failure of the main contenders to form a coalition government led to one more election in March 2020. By this time, Mr. Netanyahu had been charged with corruption. No party won a clear majority this time as well, but in an unprecedented move, rival contenders Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz decided in May to form a government to get the country through the coronavirus pandemic. Already weakened by infighting, the coalition came to an end over a deadlock in passing the national budget in December.

Is Benjamin Netanyahu set for a comeback?

Netanyahu hailed the announcement of the dissolution of the parliament as “great news for millions of Israeli citizens”, vowing to form the government in the elections expected to take place in October.

His party Likud is already the largest block in the Knesset and he is leading in the polls, despite being on three graft trials- for trying to obtain favourable media coverage, partiality toward a telecom company, and receiving expensive gifts.

However, it is once again left to be seen if he is able to form an alliance with other parties, as no single party has ever achieved a clear majority.


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Printable version | Aug 7, 2022 4:45:52 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/explained-why-is-israel-set-to-hold-a-fifth-national-election-in-three-years/article65551837.ece