Likud to support dissolving Knesset, heralding new elections

Israel set to go to the polls next spring, after Netanyahu’s party gives formal nod to breaking apart coalition

Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with MK Ze'ev Elkin during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 1, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with MK Ze'ev Elkin during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 1, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The ruling Likud faction has formally decided to vote in favor of opposition-proposed bills on the Knesset docket that would dissolve the Knesset and bring about early elections, party sources told The Times of Israel Tuesday.

The preliminary vote on the dissolution bills will take place Wednesday, with the third and final vote formally setting a date for the dissolution of the 19th Knesset expected as early as Monday next week.

Elections are expected in March or April. The final date will be set in the dissolution bill. By law, elections must take place no earlier than three months after the Knesset’s dissolution but no later than five months.

The Likud decision came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a list of demands on Finance Minister Yair Lapid, which Lapid said were unacceptable, all but sealing the need for early elections.

The breakup of the coalition is not unexpected. Nine of the last 10 Knessets dissolved early as the ruling multi-party coalition came undone. But the average lifespan of a Knesset is nevertheless around three years; the 19th Knesset is only in its 21st month.

Opposition parties hailed the collapse late Monday and early Tuesday.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party was first out of the gate overnight late Monday to call for setting a date for new elections.

Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri said the heads of all political parties must come together to agree “on the closest date possible” for new elections. He reiterated his conditions, first made public last week, for joining a future government, including cutting the 18% sales tax on many basic grocery goods, raising the minimum hourly wage from NIS 23.12 ($5.87) to NIS 30 ($7.62), and changing the recently passed ultra-Orthodox draft law.

Deri’s statement followed the explosive meeting between Netanyahu and Lapid Monday night — initially described as a last-ditch effort to save the coalition following a crisis over the “Jewish state” bill and the state budget.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on November 30, 2014. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/FLASH90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on November 30, 2014. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/FLASH90)

In the sit-down, the prime minister presented a list of stiff demands to restore government stability, including that he “stop undermining and lashing out at the government of which he is a member” and a freeze to Lapid’s flagship tax-free housing plan known as the “0% VAT” bill. The demands appeared designed to force Lapid to reject them.

In separate statements, the two then accused each other of dragging the country to “unnecessary” new elections.

Shas, which has sat in the opposition during the tenure of the 19th Knesset along with the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, is said to have recently discussed joining the next Netanyahu government should he dissolve the current one (and win the next elections).

Rumors of pre-election maneuvering have circulated in recent weeks, reaching a feverish pitch over the weekend, including a report that aides to Lapid had approached the ultra-Orthodox parties with offers to join them in forming a new coalition, and that Netanyahu had done the same.

The Haredi parties, to their dismay, were blocked out of the coalition following the January 2013 elections that saw Netanyahu able to form a majority government without them, largely at the insistence of Lapid and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who conditioned his joining Netanyahu on the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

New elections could offer an opportunity for the ultra-Orthodox factions to find a way back to power.

Opposition head and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog also joined the fray overnight in welcoming likely new elections.

“The people do not trust this government,” Herzog wrote on Facebook. “We must hold elections as soon as possible and replace the leadership. The Labor Party will lead the winning bloc and renew hope among Israeli citizens.”

Following the stormy session late Monday between Lapid and Netanyahu, sources in both Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party charged that Netanyahu had deliberately torpedoed the meeting, armed with a list of five demands he knew Lapid could not accept, because he had already cut a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties to set up a new coalition.

“Netanyahu was planning [to torpedo the meeting] all along, even before Lapid opened the door to his office,” the sources in Yesh Atid said. “Netanyahu read out the demands like one reads to a child,” they told the Ynet news site.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Tzipi Livni during a plenum session in the Knesset in June 2014. (Photo credit: Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Tzipi Livni during a plenum session in the Knesset in June 2014. (Photo credit: Flash90)

“The [so-called] effort to stabilize the coalition was a bluff. Netanyahu closed a deal with the Haredi parties and with Bennett. The whole affair was meant to cover up this deal and present demands for elections,” sources in Justice Minister Livni’s Hatnua party added.

Lapid’s statement after the Monday meeting, like Netanyahu’s, left little room for hope that new elections could be averted.

Still, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) urged Lapid to accept Netanyahu’s demands and not allow the Israeli public to be dragged to elections.

Promising to choose “more deserving partners” in the next coalition, Likud MK Danny Danon accused Lapid of being an amateur and leading Israelis to “expensive, unnecessary elections, in which the Likud will once again win.”

Livni said Monday night that the crisis, and the upcoming elections, were about “Zionism versus extremism.”

“These [will be] elections between the Israeli Zionist camp and dangerous extremists who must be prevented from taking control of the State of Israel and destroying it,” she charged.

During the meeting in his Jerusalem office, Netanyahu told Lapid that “the government cannot be sustained in a situation where he [Lapid] and his party incessantly attack the government in which they themselves are members,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

Netanyahu’s demands of Lapid included that he toe the line when it came to the controversial “Jewish state” legislation and back the formulation of the bill that was being drafted by the prime minister and Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein.

“The citizens of Israel vested me with responsibility, and with the current government, it is impossible to manage the country as the citizens of Israel expect that we do,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “If the unprecedented conduct of some of the cabinet ministers persists there will be no choice but to seek the voter’s trust once again.

“This isn’t the option that I favor, but a far worse option will be the continued existence of a cabinet whose own ministers sabotage the government’s actions and policies to the detriment of the public interest.”

Minutes after Netanyahu published his list of demands, Lapid said that Netanyahu was “dragging Israel to unnecessary elections,” explaining that the prime minister had presented demands that were impossible to accept.

Netanyahu, Lapid charged, was acting “without consideration for the national interest” and placing “the needs of the Israeli public at the bottom of his list of priorities.”

“The demands by the prime minister to Yesh Atid expose his political intentions,” Lapid said.

“Netanyahu prefers a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties to bring about early elections above the interests of the wider Israeli public. The Israeli public now understands that at the head of the government is a prime minister who doesn’t carry out his promises, a prime minister who prefers his personal survival to their interests,” he went on.

The Yesh Atid leader said he was committed “to continue fighting for the citizens of Israel and the public’s right to a socially aware budget with billions of shekels towards education, health, welfare and internal security, without tax rises and with a comprehensive housing plan for young couples.”

Earlier Monday, amid growing criticism of Netanyahu from several ministers in his coalition, the prime minster warned that unless the government could work together “harmoniously,” he would initiate elections for early next year, two years ahead of schedule.

During a Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu decried to MKs from his party the lack of coalition support for his domestic and diplomatic policies, saying, “My diplomatic policies are constantly attacked [by coalition partners], and even construction in Jerusalem has become a controversial issue.”

He went on to accuse coalition members of trying to oust him, and told the MKs that although he was “reluctant” to call for early elections, he would do so if it was in Israel’s best interests.

“I have not received even the most basic obligation — the loyalty and responsibility of ministers to the government in which they serve,” Netanyahu said.

Elie Leshem and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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