The 22nd Israeli Knesset approved its own dissolution on Thursday (December 12) and the holding of a new national election on March 2, which will be the country’s third in less than a year. The motion passed in a vote of 94 lawmakers in favor with none opposed, just hours after the expiration of the final deadline for the formation of a government.
Such developments had once seemed nearly impossible to many Israelis and is unprecedented in the State’s 71-year history. Constituents are not only faced with a third visit to polling stations after two inconclusive previous elections in 2019, but there is also a heavy economic price to consider. It will be well into 2020 before a new fiscal budget can be passed, likely meaning months of cutbacks that will impact growth.
Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in the Knesset (parliament) for a governing majority in either of the two previous contests. Both leaders were delegated with the task of forming a coalition, but neither succeeded. Each has blamed the other for the political impasse, in which neither could agree on terms for a “rotating” premiership.
This year’s electoral turmoil began on April 9, when Israelis cast their ballots to elect the 120 members of the 21st Knesset, that many viewed as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s record reign. The Premier declared a “colossal victory” after televised exit polls indicated that the Likud had won more mandates that the Blue and White Party. Earlier, Gantz had also claimed victory revealed his newly formed faction garnered equal support as the Likud, which was founded in 1973 by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Final electoral results pitted the two sides against each other in a dead heat, with 35 seats each. The balance of power was held by the smaller parties, and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin nominated Netanyahu as the candidate best able to head the next government after receiving recommendations from leaders representing 65 seats in the Knesset, whereas Gantz received just 45.
The backing of Netanyahu’s natural right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Jewish political partners still wasn’t sufficient to ensure his historic fifth term in office. The greatest obstacle was the refusal of former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman‘s ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party to endorse Netanyahu, due to stark disagreement with the United Torah Judaism faction over a military conscription bill enabling exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students.
On May 30, Israeli lawmakers dissolved the 21st parliament in a vote of 74 in favor and 45 against. Netanyahu held Lieberman accountable for the insurmountable stalemate of the coalition talks and pledged to win a snap elections set for September 17. Liberman responded that “Only the Likud is to blame for the failure of coalition negotiations.”
Analysts saw the second round of elections in less than a year as a big blow to Netanyahu and an unprecedented upheaval, even for a country used to political infighting. Parties resumed their campaigns in August and the start of September for the elections – which resulted in exit poll projections of a race that was too close to call. This time, Netanyahu made no victory claim or concession of defeat, saying only that “Israel needs a strong government, stable government, Zionist government.” Avigdor Lieberman once again emerged as a possible kingmaker, saying in a post-election speech that the nation had “only one option” of forming “a national, liberal, broad government.” Gantz echoed Liberman’s call for unity, and said it appeared that the Prime Minister was defeated. “Starting tonight,” the Blue and White party leader vowed, “we will work to form a wide unity government that will express the will of the people and most of society.”
On September 23, following two days of consultations with leaders of all parties that won parliamentary seats, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin summoned both Netanyahu and Gantz to a closed-door meeting, where he urged them to join forces. When those initial power-sharing talks fell through, on September 25 Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with assembling a new government due to the pledged-support for his Likud party by 55 legislators, against 54 for Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party.
Thus, October 3 the 22nd Knesset was sworn into office amid a relentless political crisis that failed to abate. Just 18 days later, Netanyahu relinquished his effort to form a new government after once again failing to secure a majority coalition within the required time limits; giving rise to an opportunity for Gantz to replace Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Gantz’s nomination on October 23 marked the first time since 2008 that someone other than the 70-year-old Netanyahu had been asked by Israel’s President to build a ruling coalition.
But Gantz, too, failed to meet his deadline to form a new government. The Blue and White had refused to sit in a coalition with a Likud lead by Netanyahu, who was then facing possible indictment in three criminal cases. Netanyahu dismissed any proposed rotating premiership arrangements in which he could not serve first. Liberman, who declined to back either Netanyahu or Gantz but insisted his Yisrael Beiteinu faction would only agree to support a national unity government of both the major parties, commented, “If we roll towards election, it’s because of lack of leadership. One (Gantz) was not ready to accept the president’s plan (for unity) and the other (Netanyahu) was not willing to separate from his ultra-Orthodox messianic bloc.”
Gantz’ return of the mandate on November 20 then triggered the next stage of Israeli’s political electoral process, which has never before been implemented. President Rivlin announced the beginning of a 21-day period during which Members of Knesset (MKs) could appoint any legislator in the 120-seat assembly to form a government.
The following day, Attorney General Avichai Mandleblit announced his decision to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, further plunging Israel deeper into political disarray. As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign as a result of the pending indictment, and while in office he can ask the legislature to grant him immunity from prosecution He has adamantly maintained his innocence of any wrongdoing, and declared he will not step down from office. He accused legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.
On December 2, a 30-day period during which the Premier could request parliamentary immunity from the charges began, after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit formally submitted Netanyahu’s indictment to Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein. Blue and White Head Gantz demanded that Netanyahu waive his pursuit of immunity, a demand that continues to this day.
The window for the emergence of a viable MK to form the next Israeli government closed on December 11, at midnight (2200GMT), automatically triggering the holding of another election within 90 days. As caretaker premier, Netanyahu will remain in the post until a new government is formed. The President of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) think tank, former MK Yohanan Plesner told Reuters that now, “Israel will continue to be in an election mode for an additional half a year.” Referring to the origin of the crisis caused when the 20th Knesset also voted to dissolve itself, Plesner pointed out that the country have been stuck “in an election mode since December of 2018,” meaning “that Netanyahu will complete a year and a half as prime minister of a care-taker government that cannot make major decisions, neither appointments nor legislation or in any level of national decision making.”
Even though the IDI President emphasized that “Israeli democracy is sound and strong,” he went on to insist critical changes are needed to prevent further political turmoil in the future. “Yesterday’s crisis proves that we need to fix the system in two ways: Number one, electoral reform, to ensure that our electoral system produces a decisive outcome. And number two, to change the legislation in a way that will determine that a prime minister who is under indictment cannot continue to serve as prime minister and will have to be suspended until he clears his name in court,” said Plesner.
The entire issue of a quest by Netanyahu for immunity has now been rendered moot until the formation of the next government sometime in the spring of 2020 following yet another round of tortuous coalition-building attempts. But it is likely to become a focal point during the upcoming campaign.
Israelis have been very open about voicing frustration over the seemingly impassable gridlock among the nation’s leaders. 25-year-old computer programmer Ohad Chaed of Tel Aviv told Reuters that he believes “this is the worst thing for Israel right now. We are in a bad situation economically, by means of our foreign relations and by means of our health system, and the only thing we need now is a stable government that will handle these issues.” Law firm employee Amit Sharf, 30, said, “I feel like it’s one person against the whole country, trying to block some sort of government being built up, but then again you can blame the other heads of coalition… the heads of parties as well for not being able to complete as well. It’s a big problem that we’re stuck in nowadays and we’ll see. Hopefully it’ll fix up soon, but I don’t see anything really happening and changing.”
50-year-old Tel Aviv florist Diana Perkins bemoaned not only having to return yet again to the polls but reflected on how the many challenges facing Israel have been frozen due to the government’s stagnation. “It’s frustrating to have a third election, to think that we can’t come to some sort of agreement as to how the country should move forward,” she said, continuing that “it just feels, in some ways, a little bit hopeless that there should ever be a peace process, I don’t know who has the answer, I wish I had a magic ball to say, like, ‘this is going to solve all the issues.'”
The latest public opinion poll broadcast on Israel’s Channel 13 news December 10 predicted a Blue and White victory of 37 seats over Likud’s 33. The findings that neither of the two major parties are expected to garner anything even approaching an outright majority only reinforces collective Israeli dismay over a perceived inevitable resumption of battle by both parties in their efforts to secure enough allies for a governing coalition this coming spring.
— By Erin Viner