Why Does Israel Have So Many Elections?

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-06-21 19:34:56 : Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel is moving in the coming days to dissolve Parliament and bring down his own government a year after taking office, a process that will automatically trigger new elections within a few months. The dissolution bill has been scheduled for a preliminary vote on Wednesday, with a final vote coming most likely on Monday.

Mr. Bennett’s coalition had started out with a razor thin majority, and recently lost it, making it impossible to govern.

A new election will give Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and now the leader of the opposition, the chance for a comeback even as he is battling corruption charges. Still, his path back to power is far from assured.

Barring the unlikely scenario that Mr. Netanyahu or another party leader can assemble an alternative coalition commanding at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, Israelis will head back to the ballot box in the fall for the fifth time in less than four years.

Here are some reasons.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy with an electoral system of proportional representation. No single party has ever won enough votes for an outright majority in Parliament. Instead, the larger parties must form coalitions by enlisting the support of smaller parties that negotiate to protect their narrow interests and often end up wielding disproportionate power.

The last few years have been particularly tumultuous. Between April 2019 and March 2021 Israel held four elections that ended inconclusively, with a Parliament roughly split between parties in alliance with Mr. Netanyahu, who has served a total of 15 years in office, and those opposing his bids to stay in power.

Mr. Bennett, the leader of a small, right-wing party, has led an unwieldy eight-party coalition made up of political opponents from the right, left and center with clashing ideological agendas, and which included the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli governing coalition.

Nicknamed the “kumbaya coalition” by some, its partners were bound by their desire to restore a sense of national unity and stability — and primarily, to unseat Mr. Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in office.

But tensions within the coalition over policy issues and unrelenting pressure from Mr. Netanyahu and his allies led two members of Mr. Bennett’s party, Yamina, to quit the coalition. Several left-wing and Arab lawmakers also rebelled on key votes, leading to governmental paralysis, then implosion.

Once the dissolution of Parliament is finally approved, most likely before the end of June, Mr. Bennett will hand over power to Yair Lapid, the centrist foreign minister and a former television personality, who will lead a caretaker government for several months at least, up until the election and for the duration of the protracted coalition negotiations likely to follow.

Under the terms of the coalition agreement, Mr. Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, Israel’s second-largest party after Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, was supposed to take over from Mr. Bennett as prime minister in August 2023.

But the agreement included a safety clause in the event that the government did not last that long. It stipulated that if Parliament were dissolved because of the actions of right-wing coalition members, as is the case, Mr. Lapid would automatically become acting prime minister of the interim government.

No date has yet been set for the election, but a consensus appears to be emerging that it will take place in late October or early November.

Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party are leading in the polls, followed by Mr. Lapid and Yesh Atid. Mr. Bennett, whose Yamina party commanded only six seats in Parliament when he was sworn in last year, does not appear to have gathered much additional support.

The leader of the party that garners the most votes is usually granted the first chance to form a government. Mr. Bennett’s case was highly unusual: he served as prime minister because he was seen as most acceptable to the right flank of the diverse coalition.

A fifth election may not produce a more definitive result or a more stable government than the previous four, according to analysts.

“We’ve been in this movie four times and we can get similar results a fifth time,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“For Netanyahu’s part, there can be 1,000 elections,” Professor Rahat added. “He is prepared to shuffle the deck again and again until he wins.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s allies are hoping that disappointment with Mr. Bennett’s government will propel voters on the right who had abandoned Mr. Netanyahu back into the pro-Netanyahu camp.

“A lot of people have changed their minds,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud lawmaker and former minister, pointing to opinion polls that show an erosion in support for some parties in Mr. Bennett’s coalition.

But unless Mr. Netanyahu is victorious and forms the next government, said Ben Caspit, a political commentator and author of two Netanyahu biographies, this could be his last election campaign, since some of his political allies appear less inclined to tolerate another failure.

This latest political upheaval comes amid an escalation in a clandestine battle between Israel and Iran. And the conflict with the Palestinians hovers over every election.

This time, the integration of Israel’s Arab parties in the national government is likely to come under the spotlight. Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly tried to delegitimize Mr. Bennett’s government as being “dependent on supporters of terrorism,” referring to the Arab politicians who are citizens of Israel.

Centrist and left-wing Israelis counter that a Netanyahu government will be dependent on far-right extremists.

Mr. Netanyahu has promised more peace deals with once hostile countries. With the help of the Trump administration, he had established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

The rising cost of living and exorbitant housing prices are perhaps most troubling to many voters.

Critics of Mr. Netanyahu said that should he return to power, Israel’s very democracy would be at stake as his allies call for curbs on the judicial system and the cancellation of his trial.

“He wants to crush Israeli democracy and set up a corrupt dictatorship without courts, and with a media that serves him,” said Or-Ly Barlev, an Israeli social activist and independent journalist. “We are on the edge of a chasm.”

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