New elections loom after Knesset passes first vote to dissolve

Israel hurtles toward another national vote in a matter of months as talks between Netanyahu and Liberman fail to yield breakthrough

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman is seen during the ceremony for the swearing-in of the 21st Knesset, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman is seen during the ceremony for the swearing-in of the 21st Knesset, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday took a big step toward dissolving the parliament and calling a second national election within months, as last-ditch coalition talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman failed to produce a breakthrough.

Parliament was witness to a farcical spectacle on Monday afternoon, as right-wing lawmakers pushed for fresh elections, weeks after triumphantly declaring victory in the April 9 vote; opposition lawmakers defeated in the polls voted to keep the parliament intact; and poker-faced ministers conceded they could not speak in the name of the coalition, which does not exist, as they made their arguments to the plenum in favor of the move.

After a brief debate, 65 lawmakers voted in favor of dissolving the parliament, 43 opposed it and six MKs abstained. The Likud-spearheaded bill — which had to be submitted as a private-member bill, since there is no government — requires three more votes to trigger snap elections, which are proposed to be held on August 27.

Holding two elections at such a short interval would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.

House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar leads a discussion at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As lawmakers voted, Netanyahu and Liberman met for talks and the prime minister announced he would be making a prime-time announcement at 8 p.m.

A Likud official later said the meeting, which last only 22 minutes, ended without a breakthrough.

The Knesset vote was widely seen as a pressure tactic to persuade prospective coalition partners to soften their demands, as well as a bid to prevent President Reuven Rivlin from tasking another lawmaker with forming a government should Netanyahu fail to do so by a Wednesday deadline.

Blue and White, which has vowed that it will not join a government led by Netanyahu, is tied with Likud as the largest party in the Knesset. On Monday, its leader, Benny Gantz, said that if Netanyahu cannot form a government, he should be given a chance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, right. (Flash90)

“My friends in Blue and White and I maintain that the responsibility for forming a government should be given over to the only existing alternative — the party that I lead,” Gantz said at the opening of a Blue and White faction meeting at the Knesset.

The centrist party has no clear path to forming a government, as it has ruled out an alliance with Arab lawmakers, and ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties have said they will not join a Blue and White government.

Blue and White, along with the other opposition parties Labor and Meretz, voted against unraveling the Knesset in the preliminary vote.

Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.

Earlier, Liberman, the Yisrael Beytenu leader, said his party will vote in favor of dissolving parliament and calling new elections. Liberman has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a bill regulating the draft of ultra-Orthodox men into the army. The bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs Yisrael Beytenu and both the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.

Blue and White party leaders MK Benny Gantz, right, and MK Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Likud won 35 seats in the April 9 election. The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, each won eight seats. Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu won four. And the hawkish Union of Right-Wing Parties won five. Together, these parties hold 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Netanyahu also needs the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, with its five seats, for a majority.

Netanyahu faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a coalition. But should he fail to build a coalition by then or dissolve the Knesset, the prime minister may be able to buy himself another 14 more days, exercising a never-before-used legal provision, analysts say.

As the deadline expires — and should the Knesset remain intact — Rivlin would be able to task another lawmaker with forming the government. But 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, months after the April 9 vote.

AFP contributed to this report.

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