The Knesset House Committee on Wednesday set March 16 as the potential date for Israelis to go to the polls, advancing legislation to dissolve the parliament as the country continued its slide toward its fourth elections in two years.
The vote on the bill passed 10-7, with the Blue and White party voting alongside opposition parties in favor of the legislation. The MKs from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, as well as the coalition Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, voted against the measure.
The bill also included a proposal from Blue and White to reduce funding for the election by around 10 percent and increase transparency to clarify who is paying for campaign advertising.
The bill must clear three more plenum votes — the first on Monday — before passing into law.
The Knesset House Committee, where the Blue and White-led bloc has a majority over Netanyahu’s bloc, had previously voted to keep the discussions on the bill in its hands rather than pass it to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, where the Likud bloc has a majority and which could have held up the bill for weeks.
Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg, the head of the committee, said on Tuesday that even though the snap election has not yet been approved, officials should begin planning as if it had been.
The committee vote came amid yet another upheaval in Israel’s political landscape after Likud MK and Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar announced on Tuesday he was leaving the party to form a rival political movement.
Several lawmakers, including Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and MK Gideon Hauser, the two Derech Eretz faction lawmakers in the Knesset, are expected to soon declare they will join him. A poll has already shown that the New Hope party Sa’ar is setting up would be the third largest in the Knesset and could deny Netanyahu and his allies a majority should elections be held in the coming months.
The proposal to dissolve the Knesset passed in an initial plenum vote last week, heralding the end of the short-lived power-sharing coalition between Netanyahu and his alternate premier, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
However, even without the bill, the Knesset was already on track to dissolve later this month due to an impasse over the state budget which has long been held up by Likud. Netanyahu is widely believed to be planning to dissolve the government anyway before the 2021 budget must be passed in March, in order to prevent a scenario where, as stipulated by their power-sharing agreement, Gantz will succeed him as prime minister.
Blue and White has been demanding that a state budget be passed for 2020 and 2021 together — also as the coalition deal stipulates — in a bid to force Netanyahu to honor the premiership rotation clause. If Likud continues to resist those demands, elections will be triggered on December 23 at the latest and held three months later.
Likud prefers the elections be postponed to summer, when much of the population is expected to already be vaccinated against the coronavirus and criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic may ease.
The head of the Central Elections Committee cautioned on Tuesday that with Israel seemingly headed to new elections before vaccines can significantly mitigate the effects of the pandemic, safeguards will need to be put in place to ensure the vote does not cause significant coronavirus infections.
During a meeting of the State Control Committee in the Knesset, CEC director Orly Ades said there may have to be multiple days of voting, as well as drive-thru facilities where citizens who are ill with the virus or under quarantine can cast their ballots.
Israel has only a very small amount of absentee voting, limited to diplomats abroad, soldiers stationed away from home and those hospitalized, and all others are assigned a specific polling place.