The Knesset on Wednesday evening passed the first reading of a bill to dissolve parliament and set elections for April 9, following a six-hour debate that likely included the final plenary speeches for at least some of the lawmakers present.
Voting by 104 to 0 in favor of the government bill, MKs took a decisive step towards concluding the work of the 20th Knesset and officially launching the three-month campaign leading up to a national ballot.
Several identical bills presented by opposition parties also passed, with slightly reduced majorities.
The bills now return to the Knesset House Committee for deliberation, where they will be merged into one proposal ahead of second and third readings expected to take place late Wednesday night.
In the plenary’s second session, the bill will face two separate votes: the first on each of the two clauses in the bill, and the second on the bill as a whole. If the final vote passes with even a simple majority, the Knesset will automatically disperse.
The first clause of the no-frills bill states the 20th Knesset will “dissolve itself ahead of elections,” and the second sets the date, agreed upon by coalition and opposition parties, for April 9.
Opening the debate on the first reading, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein vowed that despite a threat from one prominent Likud lawmaker to block the move, the dissolution bill would be passed in this Knesset session, however long it took.
“Two days ago, I convened all party leaders in my office. We made a clear decision… the elections will take place on April 9, and today the law to dissolve the Knesset will be passed in its second and third readings,” Edelstein said.
“I declare here and now that this session will not be closed and we will not change its agenda until the law to dissolve the Knesset is passed. If it’s today — then today. If it’s tomorrow — then tomorrow or in a week. But this session will not end until the law is passed,” he promised.
His comments came in response to the head of the Knesset House Committee, MK Miki Zohar, who has called for delaying the dissolution of the Knesset, arguing that lawmakers needed more time to pass essential legislation before the elections and suggesting that he would use his position to block the bill.
While elections have traditionally been held at least 90 days after the dissolution of the Knesset, by law, there is no minimum waiting period. If the Knesset votes to dissolve Wednesday, it will leave 105 days until elections, while immediately freezing any bills working their way through the legislature.
According to Knesset bylaws, as chairman of the committee which would oversee the preparation of the bill, Zohar could in theory hold up the proposal indefinitely with no obligation to hold a vote within any specified time frame.
Speaking at Wednesday morning’s committee meeting, Zohar said that he agreed with the date set for the national poll, but thinks the Knesset should wait to officially call elections.
“The date has been agreed upon by all factions and I support it,” he said at the opening of the debate. “But there are tax laws that are very important to those who sent us here and we can finalize the legislation on a number key issues.”
Coalition chairman David Amsalem, however, said that the bill to dissolve parliament would be passed in all three readings Wednesday and other legislation would be passed during special recess sessions that can be called during the election campaign.
Introducing the bill on behalf of the government, Tourism and Immigration Minister Yariv Levin said that the Knesset was closing after “four incredible and unprecedented years of work for the sake of the people of Israel.”
“This government and this Knesset has improved the lives of the public and the status of Israel,” he added, “just as the next one, also under the Likud, will.”
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said that for her, the last four years have been marked by a sense of “dread and fear for the future of Israeli democracy.”
She said that the new elections offered the public “a hope that we can finally change this corrupt leadership that has blackened the face of Israel.”
Netanyahu on Monday called the early elections for April, setting the stage for a campaign clouded by a series of corruption investigations against the long-serving Israeli leader.
With the Likud leader holding a commanding lead in the polls, all eyes are on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and whether he will decide before the elections on whether to press charges against him on a series of corruption allegations.
A first major round of polls on Tuesday found that Netanyahu is the strong favorite to win the upcoming race, though he is not hugely popular among voters.
The polls found that most Israelis do not think Netanyahu should be the next prime minister, but even fewer think any one of his rivals should be. In Israel’s multi-party system, even middling support is usually enough to win the premiership.
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