World Jewish News
Israel headed to elections as Netanyahu’s coalition dissolves parliament
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition announced Monday plans to dissolve the country’s parliament and hold a snap general election in April, after his government was significantly weakened more than a month ago when a key coalition partner resigned.
The departure of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister on Nov. 14 left Netanyahu’s government teetering on the edge with a single-seat majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.
As the government struggled to pass legislation important to each of Netanyahu’s five coalition partners, questions were also raised over the chances of a formal indictment against the longtime Israeli leader in at least three criminal bribery cases against him.
On Monday, it was an attempt to pass controversial legislation aimed at drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military that ultimately prompted the 61-member coalition to agree unanimously that this government could no longer survive under the current circumstances.
A vote is scheduled for Wednesday to dissolve the parliament. If dissolution is supported by more than half the Knesset members, a national election will take place on April 9. A full term would have taken the government through to November 2019.
Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party said in a statement that “national and budgetary responsibilities” have pushed the leaders of the coalition parties to “dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April.”
Speaking in the Knesset, Netanyahu said his government has successfully completed four full years in office, with “tremendous achievements in every field.”
“We come to ask for a clear mandate from the voters to continue to lead the State of Israel our way,” he said. “This way we have done a great deal for the citizens of Israel, and this way we will go on to do a great deal for the State of Israel.”
The decision Monday to disband the government appeared to be directly linked to an announcement from Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party and Netanyahu’s main challenger, that his faction would not support legislation aimed at drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army.
While all Jewish Israelis are required to serve in the military at the age of 18, those who study the Torah in recognized yeshivas, or religious schools, have traditionally received an exemption. However, manpower shortages in recent years and growing demands for equality have forced the government to reevaluate the matter and craft new legislation that would exempt only the top religious students — a move that the ultra-Orthodox have resisted.
Drafting a law to satisfy all members of Netanyahu’s coalition has proved to be a source of tension over the past year, threatening to break apart the government on several occasions.
From the outside, Lapid, who has pushed for new legislation, said the law did not go far enough. He suggested that Netanyahu had “surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox.”
Liberman, who Netanyahu’s coalition had hoped would support the law despite his resignation last month, said the law in its current format had been “emptied of content” after agreements were reached between Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Following the announcement of an election in April, Liberman said it was time to form a new government.
“We have already said for a whole month that this is a survival government and not a functioning government, and therefore for the people of Israel it is most important that a new and stable government be established,” he told journalists. He also said he would rejoin any future coalition only if the issues surrounding the draft law were resolved.
Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that although Netanyahu appeared to be caught in a weak position, his run for a fourth term as Israeli leader would go more or less unchallenged, both from within his ruling Likud party and from outside.
“To say he is weaker going in does not mean he will be weaker going out,” said Hazan. “He’s an amazing campaigner. When it comes to campaigning, this is his forte.”
The main challenge he faces now is how he will make up the next coalition, especially if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to formally charge Netanyahu.
The Israeli police have already recommended indicting Netanyahu in three cases. Case 100 involves allegations that he received gifts of cigars and jewelry from billionaire benefactors. Case 200 involves alleged illicit deals between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. And in Case 400, Netanyahu is accused of easing business regulations for the country’s largest telecommunications company in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his wife on a popular news website owned by the firm.
In a statement following Monday’s election announcement, the Justice Ministry said the process of investigating the cases relating to the prime minister would continue as planned.
“Netanyahu must have realized this is a serious threat, and the last thing he needs, in the midst of an election campaign, is for the attorney general to prosecute him,” said Hazan. “He wants to preempt this, win, and then he can say, ‘Before you decide to prosecute me, take note that the people of Israel have reelected me for a fourth time with more seats than ever before, and you cannot overturn the results of a democratic election.’”
By Ruth Eglash