20th Knesset officially dissolves, sets elections for April 9, 2019

Lawmakers pass bill to conclude the work of the current legislature after three-and-a-half years, paving the way for a 3-month election campaign

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center,  arrives in the Knesset plenum for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives in the Knesset plenum for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Three-and-a-half years after its first sitting following the 2015 elections, the 20th Knesset came to end on Wednesday as lawmakers voted to dissolve parliament and set new elections for April 9.

A day after government ministers approved pushing ahead with the move, the Knesset was host to a frantic series of committee debates and votes on the bill to dissolve parliament and officially start the campaign for the 2019 election.

After a six-hour debate on its first readings and two heated committee meetings to finalize the bill, MKs voted 102-2 in favor of the final reading, officially ending the regular work of the Knesset for the next three months.

The MKs opposed were Yehuda Glick and Yaron Mazuz of Likud.

The no-frills bill stated that the 20th Knesset will “dissolve itself ahead of elections,” and that the vote for the 21st Knesset will be held on April 9, 2019.

View of the Knesset’s Plenary Hall during a session for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament on December 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Introducing the bill on behalf of the government, Tourism and Immigration Minister Yariv Levin said that the Knesset term was ending after “four incredible and unprecedented years of work for the sake of the people of Israel.”

“This government and this Knesset has improved the lives of the public and the status of Israel,” he added, “just as the next one, also under the Likud, will.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said that for her, the last four years have been marked by a sense of “dread and fear for the future of Israeli democracy.”

She said that the new elections offered the public “a hope that we can finally change this corrupt leadership that has blackened the face of Israel.”

Netanyahu on Monday called the early elections for April, setting the stage for a campaign clouded by a series of corruption investigations against the long-serving Israeli leader.

Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni speaks during the plenary session of the opening day of the winter session at the Knesset, on October 15, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

With the Likud leader holding a commanding lead in the polls, all eyes are on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and whether he will decide before the elections on whether to press charges against Netanyahu on a series of corruption allegations.

A first major round of opinion polls on Tuesday found that Netanyahu is the strong favorite to win the upcoming race, though he is not hugely popular among voters.

The polls found that most Israelis do not think Netanyahu should be the next prime minister, but even fewer think any one of his rivals should be. In Israel’s multi-party system, even middling support is usually enough to win the premiership.

From left to right: Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Culture Minister Miri Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Israel Katz and Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis during a Plenary Hall session for a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday the heads of the five coalition parties announced that the Knesset would be dissolved at the soonest possible opportunity, saying in a joint statement, “Out of national and budgetary responsibility, the leaders of the coalition parties decided, by unanimous agreement, to dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April after a four-year term.”

The announcement came after MK Yair Lapid announced that his opposition Yesh Atid party would vote against the coalition’s bill on the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men, claiming that the government was preparing an “under the table” deal that would change the import of the legislation.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court granted the government a further month and a half to pass the bill, extending an early December deadline to mid-January. Without the extension, thousands of yeshiva students would have become eligible to be drafted.

Members of the opposition take a selfie as they celebrate following a vote to dissolve parliament at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elections will likely mean a further extension will be granted.

The decision to go to the polls came just a month after Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister and pulled his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition, leaving it with a paper-thin majority of just 61 out of 120 Knesset members.

The decision also came as Mandelblit begins reviewing materials to decide on possible charges against Netanyahu, embarking on the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement.

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said last Wednesday he was wrapping up recommendations on the three cases against Netanyahu for Mandelblit. Police have recommended he be indicted in all three, and the state prosecution reportedly has reached similar conclusions, including recommending bribery charges in at least two of the three cases.

Mandelblit was set to convene his legal team to begin working on the hundreds of pages of testimony and other evidence in the three cases on Monday, the Ynet news site reported.

With Monday’s announcement of early elections, Mandelblit’s office said it would continue its “professional process.” Experts are divided on whether the attorney general is likely to announce a decision on indictments prior to the new elections.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, would be granted a hearing were Mandelblit to decide to indict, which would necessitate a further lengthy legal process.

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