Opposition said wary of elections, despite public bravado

Coalition to begin process of dissolving Knesset, heralding return to upheaval

First of votes to disband government set to take place Wednesday morning, with process expected to wrap up next week; polls predict possible political deadlock after elections

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hold a joint press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022, announcing the demise of their coalition and plans for new elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hold a joint press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022, announcing the demise of their coalition and plans for new elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset is set to hold the first in a series of votes for its dissolution and the end of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition on Wednesday, as Israel’s short-lived “change government” calls it quits after months of crises, sending Israel to its fifth general election in under four years.

Wednesday’s vote begins the process of the government’s disbandment, which will likely wrap up next week, leaving Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as caretaker prime minister.

On Monday evening, Bennett and Lapid surprised the nation by announcing their intention to voluntarily dissolve their own coalition, saying they did so after coming to a conclusion that there was no way to maintain the current government.

Polls have already predicted political deadlock following an election, with no party having a clear path to a majority coalition, unless the current blocs of coalition and opposition parties shift. Israel went through a series of grueling, inconclusive elections between 2019-2021, with the ensuing government dysfunction incurring significant costs on the country.

Following last year’s election, Bennett and Lapid constructed Israel’s most diverse coalition ever that set out with 62 Knesset members from eight parties spanning the political spectrum from left, right and center. It made history by including an independent Arab party, Ra’am, in Israel’s government for the first time.

Bennett’s government saw early success, including by passing Israel’s first budget in several years, but it lost its majority in April and continued its downward slide from there. Renegade lawmakers scuttled key legislation, the entire Ra’am party sat on the sidelines for several weeks and Bennett’s top staffers left his office. At the end, the coalition found itself unable to pass even routine legislation, and faced the real possibility of the opposition clinching a majority to bring it down.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 19, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

After the legislative process to dissolve the Knesset is set in motion, the earliest the government can disband is Wednesday, although a more likely scenario would be Monday of next week, as the legislation must pass four plenum votes and two committee reviews.

If it proceeds as planned, once the Knesset’s disbandment is finalized, Lapid will assume the premiership and Bennett will rotate to alternate prime minister, a title that Lapid currently holds. Although the Knesset will largely cease to legislate, the government will remain in place until a new one is sworn in, post elections. Lapid will be prime minister through elections in the fall and until the formation of Israel’s next coalition government.

The elections will likely take place in late October or early November.

Lapid and Bennett initially said that they planned to bring a bill to disperse the Knesset to a vote next week, but following opposition efforts to bring their own bill forward, the coalition expedited its timeline, adding it to Wednesday’s legislative agenda.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (not pictured) hold a joint press conference at the Knesset on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The opposition, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has hailed the coalition’s downfall, but a Tuesday report said the ex-premier’s right-wing and religious bloc was concerned about the prospect of elections.

Channel 12 said the heads of the other parties in Netanyahu’s political bloc all prefer establishing an alternative coalition in the existing Knesset, rather than going to elections, and are pressuring Netanyahu to go in that direction.

The opposition could outflank the coalition in a complicated, but feasible maneuver, by creating a new alternative coalition from within the existing Knesset with the help of renegade coalition members, obviating the need for elections. The chances of such a move succeeding are slim, however, since the Likud-led opposition has been unable to assemble a majority of 61 lawmakers to sit under Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, and the coalition moved up the vote to dissolve itself to head off the attempt.

At the same time, polls have shown that the two rival political blocs will likely remain deadlocked following elections, barring any major changes in political alliances. The polls have consistently shown the parties loyal to Netanyahu faring better in a vote, but without a clear path to a majority. The Arab majority Joint List, which supports neither side, holds the balance of power.

The opposition leaders allied with Netanyahu have publicly expressed confidence that their parties will win a majority in elections, but behind closed doors, have been more fearful of a vote, Channel 12 reported.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu hails the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition party leaders Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, Aryeh Deri of Shash and Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism all fear far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir will peel away their voters, the report said.

Ben Gvir is a divisive and provocative rabble rouser who often appears at the forefront of far-right causes including Jewish access to the Temple Mount. His popularity has skyrocketed since he entered the Knesset after allying with Smotrich’s National Union party ahead of last year’s elections.

He heads the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit, which sits under Smotrich in the Religious Zionism alliance, and with a strengthened hand, could make heavier demands from Smotrich if the two run on the same ticket again, Channel 12 said. Ben Gvir said Tuesday that he does not intend to replace Smotrich as the leader of Religious Zionism.

The Sephardi, ultra-Orthodox Shas party is also concerned some of its younger voters may be drifting toward Ben Gvir.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Saturday, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef lashed Ben Gvir for visiting the Temple Mount, calling him a “fool” who committed “blasphemy” by going onto the holy site. Yosef, as chief rabbi, is forbidden from directly interfering in political affairs, but his attack on Ben Gvir for breaching religious rulings could sway some voters away from the national-religious camp, toward Shas.

United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox alliance, will be running for the first time without the presence of the renowned Haredi scholar and leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who died in March. The party prefers to keep its current strength in the Knesset and not take chances in an election, Channel 12 said.

Bennett’s coalition, which only ever had a slim majority, ousted Netanyahu after more than a decade in power, with the coalition coalescing mainly around a shared opposition to Netanyahu’s rule.

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