Less than two months after the elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday directed Likud MK Miki Zohar, the chairman of the House Committee, to introduce a bill to dissolve the Knesset, putting pressure on potential coalition parties to reach an agreement or face another vote.
The development came as Netanyahu’s Likud party prepared for the possibility that it will fail to bridge the gap between Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties in order to bring them all into a new government.
A senior political insider, familiar with the coalition talks, told The Times of Israel on Sunday that there was “a 95% chance” that Netanyahu would ultimately finalize his coalition. But he added, “This is Israeli politics. Anything can happen.”
The decision to seek the dissolution of parliament later in the week was made at a meeting of Likud ministers. Zohar told Channel 12 news that he would file the bill later in the day.
Three days before the deadline to form a coalition, Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners. The sticking point is a bill on the ultra-Orthodox military draft, which the Haredi parties seek to soften, and which must swiftly be re-legislated under Supreme Court order. Liberman, meanwhile, has insisted he won’t budge from a Defense Ministry-drafted version of the bill regulating the number of ultra-Orthodox seminary students drafted into the military.
“The bill to dissolve the Knesset is ready. Regrettably, we are being dragged into elections because of petty squabbling by some of the coalition partners,” Zohar said in a tweet along with a photo of the bill’s text calling for the dissolution of parliament and elections within 90 days.
According to the Ynet news site, the bill will call for dissolving the Knesset on Wednesday evening, as the deadline for forming a coalition expires.
In response, Liberman said, “We are not intimidated by the prospect of elections.”
The Likud secretariat said that the party will hold a meeting on Tuesday in Jerusalem to prepare for elections.
Netanyahu issued a video statement Sunday afternoon, saying he was making a “last-ditch effort to form a right-wing government and prevent unnecessary elections.”
Referring to Yisrael Beytenu along with the Shas and United Torah Judaism ultra-Orthodox parties, the premier said he had offered his likely coalition partners a proposal for a solution to the stalemate in negotiations.
“It is based on the principles established by the army and on the data that the army has determined. There is no reason to reject this [proposal],” Netanyahu said. “I’m going to invite all party leaders [for a meeting] tonight. I want to talk to them so we can try together to prevent unnecessary elections.”
A Likud source told Channel 12 that “if there is no change, and at the moment change doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, we are going to elections again.”
“It seems that is what Liberman wants, and he somehow thinks he will get more seats,” the source said. “It is not clear why he is being so stubborn. We explained to him that the ultra-Orthodox can’t be appeased in this case, but he is banging his head against a wall.”
Dissolving the Knesset would preempt a situation in which President Reuven Rivilin would ask a member of Knesset other than Netanyahu to have a try at forming a government. Such a scenario is unlikely as no MK other than Netanyahu has the backing of a majority of MKs to form a coalition. Liberman himself has stated repeatedly that he will back no candidate for prime minister other than Netanyahu.
Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich warned against talk of new elections.
“There are situations when extreme caution is necessary,” he tweeted. “Playing with the idea of new elections is playing with fire. It is liable to get out of control and topple the right-wing government.”
In a statement, the Shas party rejected Liberman’s assertion that it and the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, did not oppose the version of the draft bill that he is promoting, when it passed a first reading in the previous parliament.
“Mr. Liberman is not telling the truth about the draft bill, and is using it as an excuse to bring down the right-wing government,” Shas said in a statement. “Shas and UJT opposed the bill on its first reading and demanded that changes and alterations be made. The statements that we went back on it are baseless lies.”
Most political analysts still assess that Netanyahu will manage to persuade all five potential coalition parties — UTJ, Shas, the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu — to join his Likud in a 65-strong coalition ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.
If that doesn’t happen, and the Knesset is not dissolved, Rivlin will have to decide whether to task another Knesset member with forming the next coalition. Since the prevailing assessment is that nobody else would be able to secure the 61-seat majority needed, that scenario too would likely lead to fresh Knesset elections, two months after the April 9 vote.
Earlier Sunday Netanyahu seemed optimistic that he will, ultimately, form a government before running out of time.
He told Likud ministers that talks will continue in an effort to reach an agreement between Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties for a compromise on a law regulating military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.
In the event that the sides are not able to reach an agreement and new elections are called, Netanyahu told the Likud ministers that their party will run on a joint list with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.