Israel to Hold Elections in April, Netanyahu's Government Announces

'If it's too difficult to pass laws, we need elections,' prime minister says ■ Announcement sends down Tel Aviv stocks ■ Senior White House official: Israeli early elections a factor in Trump peace plan publication

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and President Reuven Rivlin, July 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and President Reuven Rivlin, July 2017.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

Israel's coalition heads announced Monday that they have decided to hold elections on April 9, adding that the Knesset will be dissolved ahead of the elections.

The Knesset is expected to dissolve by the end of the week.

Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 9Credit: Haaretz

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the coalition heads unanimously agreed to hold elections on April 9, adding that he wants the current coalition to form the nucleus of the next government. The prime minister called on Israeli voters to give the government a clear mandate to continue governing on its current path.

Netanyahu said Israel can head to elections now, as opposed to a month and a half ago, when Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense minister and the premier urged his partners to avoid heading to elections over security concerns.

Netanyahu said on Monday that the delicate security situation caused by Hezbollah's terror tunnels on the Israel-Lebanon border is now mostly under control, and therefore, this is the "perfect timing" to call early elections.

Responding to decision, a senior White House official said later Monday that the fact Israel was headed for a snap election is "one of many factors we are considering in evaluating the timing of the release of the peace plan."

The White House official’s response made it clear that the administration hasn’t yet decided when to release the plan. President Trump said in September that the plan will be released within four months, setting January 2019 as the deadline for its publication.

Netanyahu made the move while speaking at the beginning of the Likud faction's meeting. The premier said that "the government will complete four full years in tenure with incredible achievements: We have turned Israel into a rising force in the world, we are politically flourishing. We are continuing resolutely to prevent Iran's entrenchment in Syria, we are about to finish dismantling Hezbollah's tunnels, and also in the financial and social fields, our achievements are incredible."

Netanyahu raised the need to call elections at the beginning of the coalition heads' meeting. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon immediately agreed, while coalition whip David Amsalem said that it was difficult for the government to pass laws with the Knesset's current make-up, given the coalition's narrow majority.

"We cannot continue like this" Amsalem said. Netanyahu responded: "So if it's too difficult, we need elections."

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, did not attend the meeting but was called afterward to secure his approval. Bennett lent his support, along with Interior Minister Arye Dery, leader of the Shas party, and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni.

Elections were previously scheduled for November 2019. But since Lieberman's resignation the coalition has been relying on the slimmest of parliamentary majorities, just 61 out of its 120 members, and has found governing difficult.

The last time a government served its full term was in 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or as a strategic move by the prime minister to maximize his chance of re-election.

'Tunraround day'

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein summoned the coalition leaders following the announcement, and will later convene the opposition heads in order to agree on a date for the Knesset's dissolution.

Opposition leaders praised the call for early elections. Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) tweeted: “Say from now on: Not election day – turnaround day.”

MK Yoel Hasson, the Zionist Union caucus whip, said the party was glad the elections are being moved up and that time is running out on Netanyahu’s term. “The public will judge what government it wants: A government of hope or of standstill. We call on the rest of the center-left parties to join us as quickly as possible to bring Israel the hope it is waiting for so much.”

MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) said: “’The Redeemer has come to Zion.’ All the tricks did not help him, we must have elections and bring about the end of the Netanyahu government, which has become a government that sows destruction in every possible area to preserve the Netanyahu’s personal survival.”

MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) tweeted: “The worst government that served here is going home. Israel needs rehabilitation from the disasters of this government, and quickly. The corrupt rule that destroyed democracy, sold out our security and led us into diplomatic isolation and an economic deficit. The Zionist Union will be here to rebuild Israel on the ruins of democracy.”

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh praised the decision on calling early elections, saying: “The earlier the better.”

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg paraphrased the traditional blessing said when a child reaches the age of a Bar Mitzvah: “’Blessed be he who hath freed us from the responsibility for this one.’ The time has come for this coalition to dissolve itself and it is Israel’s time for a better future.”

The Justice Ministry announced that the early elections would not impact the ongoing criminal probes into Netanyahu's alleged corruption.

A statement issued by the Justice Ministry said the probes will continue "as planned" and "will not depend on political events."

Tel Aviv stocks dip amid political turmoil

Tel Aviv stocks sharply turned direction downward in mid-afternoon trading following the announcement. While Israeli shares had been mixed with a negative bias in the early afternoon following a 5% drop by Israeli large-caps the day before, the announcement seems to have spooked local investors, at least to some degree. The large-cap index,TA-35 and the broader TA-125 are both down 1.7% and smaller-cap indices are losing about 0.9%.

The announcement came hours after Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid announced that his party will vote against the new law on drafting yeshiva students when it comes for its final votes in the Knesset two weeks from now. At the beginning of a meeting of the party’s Knesset members, Lapid said Netanyahu “has surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox because he is afraid of them. We are done being suckers.”

The law has been a source of tensions for the current government over the past several months, threatening to derail the coalition and bringing about early elections.

Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has also retreated from its support for the new law on drafting yeshiva students. The party announced on Monday morning that it is reexamining its decision to support the bill, saying it needs to determine whether the law has been “emptied of content” in the agreements between Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Likud members made it clear that the proposed law has not been changed and said now is the time Lieberman and Lapid “will be put to the test: Will they keep their commitments to the public and support this important law, or will they deal in petty politics at the expense of the IDF and Israeli society. The choice is in their hands.”

Last month, after Lieberman’s resignation from his post as defense minister and his party’s leaving the government coalition, sources in Yisrael Beiteinu said the party would support the draft law if it remained unchanged: “Not even a comma” from the bill approved by the Knesset in its first vote (of three). Because of this promise, and a similar commitment from Yesh Atid, Likud had planned on passing the law in the full Knesset with these votes from opposition parties.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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