Opposition lawmakers on Monday hailed the coalition’s decision to call early elections, as campaigning for the April national vote kicked off.
Amid a series of coalition crises and deliberations over a possible indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, coalition leaders announced Monday that Israel will head to the polls within four months.
Elections were previously slated for November 2019, and the announcement means that Knesset members will vote to dissolve parliament early. Hebrew media reports said the elections would likely be held on April 9.
Avi Gabbay, the leader of the current largest opposition party Zionist Union, said the next Knesset elections are “between me and Netanyahu.”
“All the political players have announced they will sit in a government headed by Netanyahu, and therefore these elections are between me and Netanyahu,” Gabbay said in a statement.
“I am aware of the weight of responsibility on the prime minister of Israel, and as prime minister I’ll lead the State of Israel to a better future. A future of change, unity and hope and belief that we can bring about change,” he said.
“In April we will win,” Gabbay said. “In April we will bring change to Israel.”
“From here on, let it not [be called] election day, but revolution day,” tweeted MK Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, in a reference to a widely used slogan when Likud’s Menachem Begin rose to power in 1977, upending three consecutive decades of Labor Party rule.
Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman, who resigned as defense minister last month in protest of the government’s policy on Gaza and pulled his party out of the coalition, quickly issued a statement congratulating the coalition heads for agreeing to call new elections.
“For the Israeli nation, the most important thing is a new, stable government,” he said.
Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid did not immediately comment on the early vote.
Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson welcomed the announcement, saying that “the countdown to the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure [as prime minister] has begun. The public will judge what government it wants — a government of hope or of stagnation.”
Fellow Zionist Union lawmaker Merav Michaeli said that “the worst government we have seen is going home. Israel needs to recover quickly from the disasters of this government — a corrupt government that ruined democracy, sold our security and led us to diplomatic isolation and financial deficit.”
In a statement, Meretz party chair Tamar Zandberg said “it is time for this coalition to dissolve, and it is time for Israel to get a better future.”
“Good riddance,” added the leader of the left-wing opposition party.
“The earlier the better,” wryly added Joint (Arab) List party leader Ayman Odeh on Twitter.
Despite ongoing disagreements over the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, which was the initial impetus for their meeting Monday, the coalition heads stressed that none of the parties will leave the government and that “the partnership in the Knesset and in the government will continue during the elections.”
In his response, Liberman also expressed hope that the government would pass the contested ultra-Orthodox draft law before the elections.
The coalition 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.
Elections will likely mean a further extension will be granted.
The decision to head to the polls also comes as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is set to begin reviewing materials to decide on possible charges against Netanyahu this week, embarking on the most high-stakes stage yet of a several-year legal entanglement that has threatened to upend the country’s political system.
State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said Wednesday he was wrapping up recommendations on three cases against Netanyahu for Mandelblit, which reportedly include recommendations that the premier be indicted on bribery charges over an affair in which he is accused of kicking back regulatory favors in exchange for positive media coverage.
Mandelblit is expected 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.
Police have recommended his indictment in three probes and the attorney general is considering how to proceed.
Netanyahu is not, however, required to step down if indicted — only if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted — and polls have indicated his Likud party would remain the largest in parliament after new elections.
Some analysts believe he would be better positioned to face potential charges with a fresh electoral mandate.
Meretz’s Zandberg urged Mandelblit to hurry to decide on whether to indict the prime minister before the elections, but most analysts believe this is highly unlikely.
Netanyahu has been prime minister for a total of more than 12 years, from 1996 to 1999 and again since 2009.
He could next year surpass the record set by Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, who spent more than 13 years in office.
The upcoming election campaign is sure to be tumultuous, with Netanyahu’s opponents likely seeking to erode his reputation as Israel’s “Mr. Security.”
The premier’s electoral appeal has rested in large part on his security credentials.
But Israel’s center-left opposition has been in disarray and may find it difficult to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu and his right-wing partners.
AFP contributed to this report.