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Why Israelis may be heading to the election polls — again

Tania Krämer
June 23, 2022

Israeli lawmakers have voted in favor of a preliminary measure to dissolve parliament. It is the first step toward a fifth election in less than four years. The vote could take place in autumn.

Benny Gantz (l), Yair Lapid (c) and Naftali Bennett (r) in the Israeli Knesset
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (c) will take over from Naftali Bennett (r) as caretaker prime minister until new elections take placeImage: dpa/picture alliance

Lawmakers on Wednesday voted in favor of a preliminary vote to dissolve the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. That sets Israel on the path to its fifth election in less than four years, which could take place in autumn.  

The timing might have been unexpected but, for many Israelis, the announcement didn't come as much of a surprise. In recent weeks, more signs emerged that Israel's coalition government of eight parties was nearing the end of its rope.

On Monday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced in a joint statement that they had agreed to hold a vote to dissolve the Knesset and to call for new parliamentary elections, which will most likely take place in October.  

"It is not an easy moment but we took the right decision," Bennett said Monday, speaking at a televised news conference alongside Lapid shortly after the statement, adding that they had done everything to hold the coalition together.  

Yair Lapid praised his coalition partner, saying that he, "put the country before his own interests." He also stressed that "a year ago we started the process of rebuilding and now we are carrying it on, carrying it on together," adding that it was important to, "go back to the concept of Israeli unity."  

Yair Lapid und Naftali Bennett sit in Cabinet meeting
Yair Lapid und Naftali Bennett formed a wide-ranging coalition last year Image: JINI via Xinhua/picture alliance

A power-sharing agreement upheld  

By next week, if the vote to dissolve parliament goes through, Naftali Bennett will step aside in favor of Yair Lapid, who will become prime minister of the caretaker government until a new government is formed.

The prospect of new elections refreshes the potential for a return to office of former longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led the opposition ever since he yielded the premiership about a year ago. Israeli media reported that Bennett might consider taking a pause from politics altogether.

This, after having partnered with alternate prime minister Yair Lapid in leading the most diverse Israeli coalition government in recent history: A coalition made up of right-wing and religious Jewish nationalists who oppose Palestinian statehood; centrist lawmakers; left-wingers opposing settlements; as well as a conservative Arab party far exceeded the expectations of many in maintaining cohesion for about one year.  

Eight-party coalition  

While it only lasted one year, the ideologically diverse coalition was hailed by supporters as vital in healing political divisions in a polarized country. In recent months, however, the government had struggled.  

"The Netanyahu camp was very united and the coalition camp was very disunited. Having so many different ideologies, different parties from the beginning, this is what many people expected," said Yonatan Freeman, international relations expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to DW.  

In April, a lawmaker from Naftali Bennett's hardline Yamina party left the coalition, causing it to lose its razor-thin majority of 61 out of the 120 parliamentary seats in the Knesset. Other parliamentarians — including from left-wing Meretz and the Ra ' am party — either threatened to quit or have not supported the coalition by absenting from important votes in the Knesset.  

"At the end, we had really a frozen ability of the government to pass any kind of legislation, as we recently saw," adds Freeman.

The coalition couldn't withstand the failure to extend emergency legislation that applies Israeli law and regulates civil matters in settlements located in the occupied West Bank. The expiration of the current term of the legislation by end of June forced the issue on the government when its coalition had already reached a fragile stage.  

The automatic extension for many years of applying the law by right-wing and center-left governments suddenly became a political pressure tool. Seizing the opportunity, the Netanyahu-led opposition pushed for a vote against any government-sponsored bill, to further paralyze proceedings on the issue.  

Speaking of the emergency law, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said its expiration would have had serious security repercussions, adding "there would have been chaos. I couldn't let that happen." 

Woman votes in Israeli polls
Voting fatigue?: In March 2021, Israelis voted in the national elections for the fourth time in two yearsImage: Tsafrir Abayov/AP/picture alliance

Back to a political stalemate?  

In June 2021, the coalition was stitched together from across the political spectrum and united by the slogan, "anything but Netanyahu." Its main aim was to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after four inconclusive national elections over the period of two years.

Ministers of this ideologically diverse coalition didn't agree on much else but managed to pass a long-overdue state budget and steer the country clear of the remainder of the coronavirus pandemic.

This government was also characteristically less loud and divisive in its political culture. But controversial issues, such as the conflict with Palestinians and Israeli occupation were put on the back burner out of concern that they might pressure the coalition.  

Now, despite that political tact, Israelis will have to go to the polls for the fifth time in just over three years, and amid a political environment that remains polarized. That could prove advantageous to the ambitions of current opposition leader Netanyahu in his bid to return to power.

Netanyahu hopes for a comeback  

On Monday evening, the 72-year-old former prime minister posted a video on Twitter describing the outgoing government as the "biggest failure" in the history of the state.

Netanyahu, who is still on trial for several corruption charges, which he denies, framed the partnership with an Arab party as one of the reasons for the latest coalition's failure. He claimed that the government was  "dependent on supporters of terror" and that it "neglected the personal security of citizens of Israel."  He vowed to form a wide government, and even try to replace the current government before the Knesset is disbanded.

Often described as one of the most divisive figures in Israeli politics, Netanyahu continues to count on a strong support base. Recent polls by national KAN television suggest that his conservative Likud party is leading the list of parties by up to 36 seats. However, some of his former right-wing allies have ruled out joining any government he might lead.

"All these people are from the right. The moment the Likud has a new leader they will have no problem forming a government with Likud. So this paradox is really what has created this deadlock for the past three years," explains Emmanuel Navon, a professor of international relations at Tel Aviv University.

On the other hand, Netanyahu can count on the far-right party Religious Zionism — which has gained seats in recent months — as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties. But polls also suggest that neither Netanyahu's right-wing religious bloc nor the center-left bloc led by Lapid would win an outright majority in the upcoming election and be able to form a coalition government.  

portrait of Benjamin Netanyahu
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been dogged by corruption allegations that he deniesImage: Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

For some Israelis, the next election campaign will be a bit of a déjà vu: While last election campaigns were commonly described as referendums on Netanyahu, this theme could return to the forefront this time around.

"It's all about your stance on Netanyahu. It's not about policy. It's all about emotions. It's all about identity politics. There's absolutely no debate on substance, on any topic," said Navon, referring to the upcoming election campaign. 

But there could be other factors that shake things up, said analyst Yonatan Freeman. "I think we have a few wild cards. For one, there might be certain personalities whom we have not yet seen on a political stage," he said.

"We could also have certain personalities who might not be running. And, number two, as we know, every minute something can change in terms of the security situation in the Middle East, that could also be a factor."  

Until then, Yair Lapid, seen as the architect of the latest uniquely diverse coalition and the leader of the second-largest party, Yesh Atid, still has several months to further prove to voters his political savvy as a prime minister. One thing is certain: In mid-July, Lapid will be the Israeli prime minister welcoming Joe Biden on his first trip to the region as US president.

Edited by: Jon Shelton