Israel braces for a possible fifth election in four years as Prime Minister Bennett seeks to dissolve parliament


Jerusalem
CNN

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has effectively resigned as prime minister after just a year in office.

Along with his key coalition ally, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – who is expected to replace him as leader as early as next week – Bennett has agreed to table a bill to dissolve parliament, the adoption of which would trigger general elections later this year.

The announcement followed weeks of increasing political uncertainty in Israel, but it still came as a big surprise.

A brief statement from the prime minister’s office said the move came “after attempts to stabilize the coalition had been exhausted”. A bill will be presented to Parliament sometime next week, the statement added.

If passed, Lapid will become the country’s fourteenth prime minister, in line with the original coalition deal signed last year. It also means that Israelis will be voting for the fifth time in less than four years.

Among the first items on Lapid’s agenda, assuming he becomes president, will be preparing for U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit next month. A senior government official said the president’s trip to the Middle East is expected to continue despite the political turmoil in Israel.

“We have a strategic relationship with Israel that goes beyond a single government. The President looks forward to next month’s visit,” the White House official said.

The Bennett-Lapid government was sworn into office in June last year, ending Benjamin Netanyahu’s roughly 12-and-a-half-year tenure.

The coalition of no fewer than eight political parties spanned the entire political spectrum, including for the first time an Arab party led by Mansour Abbas.

United in their desire to prevent Netanyahu – whose corruption trial began as early as May 2020 – from remaining in power, the unequal coalition partners agreed to put their significant differences aside.

In November, it scored a significant domestic success, passing a state budget for the first time in almost four years.

But in recent weeks a number of coalition members have either resigned or threatened to leave the government without a majority in parliament to pass legislation.

The political impasse came to a head earlier this month when a vote in the Knesset failed to uphold the application of Israeli criminal and civil law to Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

The rule, which has to be renewed every five years, among other things gives Israeli settlers the same rights as citizens in Israel and is a declaration of faith for right-wing members of the coalition, including Prime Minister Bennett.

But two members of the coalition did not support the law, meaning it did not pass. If parliament dissolves before July 1, the rule will remain in effect until a new government is formed.

Speaking alongside Lapid on Monday night, Bennett said their government had swept away what he called the bitterness and paralysis of the Netanyahu era and instead put decency and trust back in focus.

“In the last few weeks we have done everything to save this government. In our view, its continued existence was in the national interest. Believe me, we checked under every stone. We didn’t do this for ourselves, but for our beautiful country, for you, the citizens of Israel.”

For his part, Lapid recognized Bennett as a courageous and innovative leader. And he appeared to issue a stark warning of the dangers of returning to the helm of Netanyahu.

“What we need to do today is return to the concept of Israeli unity. Not allowing dark forces to tear us apart from within,” he said.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, was upbeat and said the country was smiling after what he called an evening of great news.

“After a determined opposition struggle in the Knesset and much public suffering in Israel, it is clear to all that the darkest government in the country’s history is over.”

Netanyahu and his supporters have been buoyed by recent opinion polls showing his bloc of right-wing and religious parties performing strongly, albeit still not strong enough to secure a majority in parliament.