Tuesday, October 4, 2022 -
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Israel’s merry-go-round elections

JERUSALEM — Israel is heading towards another national election — its fifth since 2019.

On June 20, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the two men who cobbled together a coalition to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from power a year ago, announced that they will help fast-track a bill to dissolve the Knesset, or Israeli parliament.

Why does this keep happening? What happens next? Could Netanyahu make a comeback?

Why are Bennett and Lapid calling for new elections?

The short answer: they have lost their parliamentary majority after multiple politicians defected from their coalition.

As soon as the new government was in place, lawmaker Amichai Chikli quit Bennett’s Yamina Party to join the opposition. That gave the Bennett-Lapid government a 61-59 majority, which lasted until April, when Idit Silman, also in Yamina, quit because of a court ruling allowing families to bring food that was not kosher for Passover into hospitals. That made it 60-60.

The final blow came as the result of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Likud Party’s decision not to vote to extend Israeli legal protections to Jewish West Bank settlers. Without Likud votes and the votes of coalition members on the left who oppose the occupation of the West Bank, the extension did not pass, infuriating Yamina members and other right-wing politicians in parliament.

The issue split the coalition’s diverse parties into poles that could not be reconciled. Nir Orbach, a Yamina Knesset member, defected. That left a 59-member coalition, an unsustainable number in the 120-seat parliament.

Why does this keep happening in Israel?

In a parliamentary system, no one party usually musters enough of a presence to lead a government on its own. Parties, and sometimes political rivals, need to come together to form coalitions that agree to work together to pass legislation; there is often just one ruling coalition and one opposition coalition.

For years, Netanyahu’s conservative coalition defeated any contenders. But by 2019, Netanyahu had alienated some more traditionally conservative voters — and some of his political allies — after being indicted on corruption charges, being seen as beholden to Orthodox parties, and perceived as imperious, anything to stay in power.

The final voter math, though, led to repeated deadlock; neither the Netanyahu or his opponents’ coalitions could eke out a firm majority.

By last year, many politicians across the spectrum could not contemplate another minute of Netanyahu in power. Bennett, who has made his name as a staunch settler supporter, and Lapid, a former TV anchor who is liberal on social issues but more hawkish on military issues, formed a coalition that included a majority Arab party for the first time.

Israel is not the only country with a parliament that has failed to form a government; for example, Italy has long been plagued with similar issues.

What happens now?

Netanyahu, who has been champing at the bit for a chance to return to power, is hoping that Nir Orbach, who chairs the Knesset’s procedural House Committee, can use his discretionary powers to delay the dissolution of parliament for a few days so Netanyahu could potentially form an alternative government based on parliament’s current makeup, without a need for new elections.

Netanyahu currently controls 55 of the Knesset seats.

Netanyahu getting to the 61 he needs is unlikely, however. As frustrated as the Arab-majority Joint List Party were with the Bennett-Lapid configuration, many Arab lawmakers revile Likud and Netanyahu even more.

Gideon Saar, who leads the six-member right-wing New Hope Party, told Army Radio that there was no way he would join a Netanyahu-led government.

Avigdor Liberman, who heads the secular right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, wants to pass a law before the next elections that would keep anyone under criminal indictment from becoming prime minister.

Various Israeli TV channel polls show Netanyahu’s bloc earning 59 or 60 seats if a vote was held right now, just short of the 61 needed for a majority.

It’s unclear what kind of group would reemerge to take Netanyahu on. Bennett is reportedly mulling a break from politics. Lapid’s Yesh Atid is polling at 20 seats, Gantz’s Blue and White at 9 and Yisrael Beiteinu at 5.

What does seem most certain for now: Lapid will take over as prime minister in the interim caretaker government, thanks to a clause written into his agreement with Bennett.

Can Lapid be a transformative prime minister in just a matter of months?

Probably not.

It is true that Lapid will be the first center-left prime minister since Ehud Olmert left office in 2009. Lapid is committed to a two-state outcome and rode to popularity as an opponent of the role of the Orthodox rabbinate in public life. As foreign minister, he has reversed Netanyahu policies, repaired ties with the American left and cooled down relations with European nationalists (which Netanyahu had strengthened).

Nothing will technically prevent Lapid from initiating bold, sweeping moves before elections take place.

Legal restrictions on a caretaker government do not kick in until after election day. But in the past, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Assaf Shapira, attorneys general and Israel’s high court have limited what interim governments can and can’t do, citing norms that apply to lame duck administrations in democracies.

Lapid is keeping the foreign minister portfolio.

“Even if we are going to elections in a few months, the challenges we face will not wait,” Lapid said in a statement last week. “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.”

Lapid will likely be in place as prime minister when President Joe Biden visits Israel in mid-July.

Could this affect Israel’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war?

The reason for Israel’s relative reticence in joining the US-led isolation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine has to do with security considerations, which in Israel transcend politics.

Russia, still present in Israel’s region after assisting the Assad regime in quelling Syria’s civil war, controls the airspace over Syria and Lebanon. Israel needs Russia’s approval for its airstrikes aimed at keeping Israel’s enemies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Syria at bay.

But Lapid, at least rhetorically, has been more outspoken than Bennett in condemning Russia for its war. How he positions himself on this issue in the early days of his short PM stint could be telling.

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