Israel’s coalition government announced Monday that it would dissolve parliament and call a new election, setting the stage for the possible return to power of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or another period of prolonged political gridlock.
The election will be Israel’s fifth in three years, and it will put the polarizing Netanyahu, who has been the opposition leader for the past year, back at the centre of the political universe.
“I think the winds have changed. I feel it,” Netanyahu declared.
In a nationally televised news conference, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it wasn’t easy to disband the government, but he called it “the right decision for Israel.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid will take over from Bennett on an interim basis in an agreement they announced together.
Lapid said he would not wait until a new election to address the problems facing Israel.
“We need to tackle the cost of living, wage the campaign against Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and stand against the forces threatening to turn Israel into a non-democratic country,” he said.
Bennett has struggled to keep his unruly coalition of eight parties together since it took office one year ago, and defections have left the crumbling alliance without a majority in parliament for more than two months.
Coalition formed after 4 inconclusive elections
Bennett formed the eight-party coalition in June 2021, after four successive inconclusive elections.
It included a diverse array of parties, from dovish factions that support an end to Israel’s occupation of lands captured in 1967, to hardline parties that oppose Palestinian independence. It made history by becoming the first Israeli coalition government to include an Arab party.
The alliance made a series of accomplishments, including passing the first national budget in several years and navigating a pair of coronavirus outbreaks without imposing any lockdowns.
But eventually it unravelled, in large part because several members of Bennett’s hardline party objected to what they felt were compromises made by him to keep the coalition afloat and his perceived moderation.
The immediate cause of Bennett’s decision was the looming expiration of laws that grant settlers of the occupied West Bank special legal status. If those laws were to expire, settlers would be subject to many of the military laws that apply to the territory’s more than two million Palestinians.
Parliament was to vote to extend the laws earlier this month. But the hardline opposition, composed heavily of settler supporters, paradoxically voted against the bill in order to embarrass the government. Members of the coalition who normally oppose the settlements voted in favour of the bill in hopes of keeping the government afloat.
By dissolving parliament, the laws remain in effect. Bennett, a former settler leader, said that if he had allowed the laws to expire, there would have been “grave security perils and constitutional chaos.”
“I couldn’t let that happen,” he said.
The dissolution threatened to overshadow a visit scheduled next month by U.S. President Joe Biden. Israeli media quoted Biden’s ambassador, Tom Nides, as saying the visit would take place as planned.
‘One of the longest funerals in history’
The election could also become an opportunity for former prime minister Netanyahu to return to power.
Israel’s inconclusive elections between 2019 and 2021 were largely referendums about his ability to rule while on trial for corruption. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.
Opinion polls have forecast 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 of a majority of lawmakers to form a new government.
Netanyahu has mocked Bennett, a former close aide, saying last week that his government had been holding “one of the longest funerals in history.”