Israel’s Parliament Dissolves, Paving Way for Another Election

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-06-30 08:22:16 : Patrick Kingsley

JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers voted to dissolve Parliament on Thursday, collapsing the government, installing a caretaker prime minister and sending an exhausted electorate to a fifth election in less than four years.

The vote will give Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing former prime minister and current opposition leader, a chance to regain power. But while polls suggest that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will remain the largest party in Parliament, they also show that his wider right-wing alliance could still struggle to form a majority coalition — prolonging Israel’s political stalemate and raising the likelihood of another election in 2023.

The return to the ballot box, for the fifth time since April 2019, was greeted with frustration by many voters. Snap elections have become a repetitive fact of life in a country where the electorate has in recent years remained consistently and evenly divided between supporters and critics of Mr. Netanyahu, preventing him or his opponents from forming a stable government backed by a parliamentary majority.

“I have no energy to vote again,” said Maya Kleinman, 45, a biologist in the city of Rehovot in central Israel. “I feel I am being forced to vote. I feel I am being held hostage by small and foul-smelling politics.”

Mr. Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption, and his fitness for office is likely to again frame the election November 1 as a referendum on his character.

The campaign is expected to sharpen a debate about the role of both the Jewish far-right camp in Israel and the country’s Arab minority within governing coalitions.

To return to power, Mr. Netanyahu will probably need the support of a hard-line nationalist alliance that many consider extremist. On the other side, the departing governing coalition would most likely need the continued support of a small Islamist party to succeed. Israeli right wingers portray that party as a supporter of terrorism.

While the economy and national infrastructure rarely play a central role in Israeli election campaigns, voters are concerned about the rising cost of living, housing prices, and recent strikes by teachers and bus drivers.

Israel will be led through the election campaign by a new interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, a centrist broadcaster turned lawmaker, who was scheduled to take over at midnight on Thursday night. Mr. Lapid succeeds a right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who resigned in accordance with a pact sealed between the two men when they formed an alliance to replace Mr. Netanyahu in June 2021.

Mr. Bennett said on Wednesday that he will not run in the next election, but will remain in the current government as Mr. Lapid’s second-in-command.

Mr. Lapid enters office at a delicate time, with President Biden scheduled to visit Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia in mid-July. For weeks, some Israeli journalists have predicted that the American president’s visit may accompany an announcement about a warming of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries that have never had a formal diplomatic relationship.

If Israelis were once surprised or even shaken by the rate at which they have gone to the polls since 2019, they are now grudgingly resigned to it, said Mitchell Barak, a political analyst and pollster in Jerusalem.

“By this point, Israelis have pretty low expectations,” said Mr. Barak. Voters were shocked to return three times to the ballot box in 2019 and 2020. But by the fourth election in 2021, Mr. Barak added, “it felt like this is just how we do things here.”

The vote cements Israel’s status as one of the world’s most turbulent democracies. Since Mr. Netanyahu was first elected in 1996, Israel has held an election every 2.4 years — a more frequent rate than any other established parliamentary democracy, according to data compiled by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

As a caretaker, Mr. Lapid has little mandate to enforce broad changes in policy.

His ascent follows a recent rise in Palestinian attacks on Israelis, an escalation of a clandestine conflict between Israel and Iran, and the resumption of U.S.-backed negotiations to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program, talks that Israel has criticized.

Mr. Lapid was foreign minister in Mr. Bennett’s fragile and fractious coalition of right-wing, centrist, leftist and Arab lawmakers, who put their differences aside last June in order to end Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure and to give Israelis a break from a relentless cycle of snap elections.

The coalition collapsed because several lawmakers eventually concluded that they were no longer willing to compromise on their political ideology simply to keep Mr. Netanyahu from power. Two right-wing members of the coalition defected after they felt the government had moved too far to the left, depriving the government of its narrow majority.

The final blow came when several Arab coalition members refused to extend a two-tier legal system in the occupied West Bank, which has differentiated between Israeli settlers and Palestinians since Israel captured the territory in 1967 and which critics call a form of apartheid. The system would have expired at the end of the month if Parliament had not been dissolved, prompting Mr. Bennett, a former settler leader, to collapse the coalition himself.

Mr. Bennett’s administration secured its initial coalition majority by partnering with Raam, an Islamist party that was the first independent Arab party to serve in an Israeli government.

Mr. Netanyahu has strongly criticized Raam’s involvement in the coalition, accusing the party of opposing the state of Israel and declaring that he would not allow it to participate in government.

In turn, Mr. Netanyahu has been criticized for his reliance on an alliance of far-right parties, called Religious Zionism, whose support he will most likely need to form a majority coalition. The leaders of Religious Zionism include Itamar Ben-Gvir, a hard-line nationalist who until recently hung in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist Jewish settler who murdered 29 Palestinians in a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron in 1994.

Supporters of the departing coalition praised it for keeping extremists like Mr. Ben-Gvir out of power and for preventing Mr. Netanyahu from changing the legal system to make it easier for him to avoid prosecution. Mr. Netanyahu denies any such intention.

The Bennett administration also prided itself on making government functional again after a period of paralysis during Mr. Netanyahu’s last two years in office.

The coalition passed a budget, the country’s first for more than three years, and filled long-vacant senior positions in the Civil Service. It improved Israel’s relationship with the Biden administration and continued to improve ties with Arab states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which first formed diplomatic relations with Israel under Mr. Netanyahu.

Under Mr. Bennett, Israel sealed a wide-ranging trade deal with the United Arab Emirates and announced a military partnership with some of its new Arab partners — an unthinkable move three years ago.

The Bennett government also began to liberalize the regulation of kosher food; reduced tariffs on food imports; and, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, made it easier to seek an abortion in Israel — one of its last acts before leaving office.

It also oversaw the least-violent year in Gaza for more than a decade, giving thousands of new work permits to Palestinian residents of the territory in hopes that such access might persuade militants in Gaza to reduce the number of rockets they fired into Israel.

The government nevertheless maintained a blockade on Gaza. And it deepened Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, permitting the construction of thousands of buildings in Israeli settlements there.

For those on the left of the coalition, its policies on Palestinians and Arabs in Israel went too far. For those on the right, they did not go far enough.

Exacerbated by relentless pressure from Mr. Netanyahu, the policy clashes ultimately prompted the two key coalition members to defect, and others to vote against government bills.

While Mr. Netanyahu currently has the momentum, analysts and pollsters say the election is still too far away to make any meaningful predictions about its outcome. Some polling shows Mr. Netanyahu’s alliance neck and neck with the departing governing coalition, and much may depend on the negotiations that follow the election.

Many analysts predict that the outcome will be inconclusive, leading to a sixth election in 2023. That could leave Mr. Lapid in charge for at least six months.

Mr. Lapid, 58, is the leader of Yesh Atid, the second-largest party, after Likud. Unlike Mr. Bennett, he supports the concept of a Palestinian state, but agreed to suspend efforts to create one to persuade right-wingers like Mr. Bennett to join the coalition last year.

Once a television host and columnist, Mr. Lapid was first elected to Parliament in 2013 and immediately became finance minister under Mr. Netanyahu. He later became leader of the opposition, and gradually won praise for his magnanimity in dealing with political partners.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.

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