Israel Heads for Third Election as Lawmakers Convene to Dissolve Knesset

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Kahol Lavan lawmaker Yair Lapid with United Torah Judaism member Uri Maklev at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, December 11, 2019
Kahol Lavan lawmaker Yair Lapid with United Torah Judaism member Uri Maklev at the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, December 11, 2019Credit:
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset on Wednesday passed in a first vote the bill to dissolve itself and hold an election on March 2, 2020, sending Israelis to the ballot boxes for the third time this year after both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz have failed in their attempts to form a governing coalition.

Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu consulted with his attorneys over whether it would be legally wise to forgo his right to request immunity from prosecution in the three criminal cases he was charged in if he and his rivals manage to overcome the current political deadlock and set up a government, preventing the election. Gantz announced Tuesday that he was willing to negotiate with the prime minister if he would not request immunity.

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The Israeli parliament has to pass the bill in two more votes before midnight on Wednesday, when the 22nd Knesset's mandate to appoint a new candidate to try and form a governing coalition will expire. If President Reuven Rivlin is not presented with 61 signatures of MKs expressing support for one candidate, the parliament will automatically be dissolved. If a candidate is picked, the president will give him or her two weeks to attempt to establish a coalition.

A different law that is supposed to be passed on Wednesday is meant to arrange the activities of the Knesset's Central Election Committee in the unique circumstances it currently faces. The law is supposed to ensure that tens of thousands of new employees will be recruited to help carry out the vote count and facilitate the polling stations throughout the country on Election Day.

Likud MK David Bitan expressed optimism for the right-wing bloc in the third election: "I think this is Netanyahu's last chance, and maybe he can actually get 61 seats," he told Channel 12 News. "I think most of the right-wing voters that didn't vote last time will go vote."

He added that Shas Chairman Arye Dery once faced indictment and received 17 seats in an election. "It doesn't rule out that the majority of the public that supports Netanyahu and the right will go vote specifically because of this," he said. "Netanyahu will need to do the work, and that's why I'm against a [party leadership] primary." Likud, Bitan said, will lose 10 seats if Netanyahu is not at the helm.  

Kingmaker Lieberman goes after Netanyahu

According to a Channel 13 News poll published on Tuesday, Kahol Lavan would get 37 out 120 Knesset seats in a potential election, while Likud is predicted 33, possibly allowing Gantz to form a narrow coalition with other center-left parties and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

Lieberman slammed former ally Netanyahu on Wednesday morning, saying he had been subjected to “smears, distortions and malicious versions.” Contradicting claims by Netanyahu and the people around him, Lieberman said he had never intended to set up a narrow coalition with Kahol Lavan, but only to supporting a broad unity government.

Campaign posters for Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz (R), Jerusalem, June 24, 2019Credit: Emil Salman

“The difference between us is that I have values and you have only interests,” Lieberman wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday morning, addressing Netanyahu.

“Mr. Prime Minister, apparently at your age your memory is betraying you and you forgot, I supposed, the president’s proposal which gave you, not Benny Gantz, the right to serve as prime minister first. If I had conducted myself the way you are conducting yourself, I’d have joined a minority government with Kahol Lavan, without hesitation.”

Lieberman also complained about the “accusations being disseminated” by “pet journalists” on Netanyahu’s behalf, namely that the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is being manipulated by hidden elements overseas. “Perhaps you are an agent of hidden, rich elements from various parts of the world," Lieberman asked, "perhaps you are an agent for James Packer? Perhaps you’re an agent for Spencer Partrich? Or maybe you’re serving Nathan Milikowsky’s economic interests?”

Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement to the press in Jerusalem, November 20, 2019Credit: AFP

He lashed out at Netanyahu’s behavior in dealing with the charges against him. “I underwent quite a few investigations and never feared them. I never hid behind immunity, and financed all the legal proceedings with my own money. Instead of tapping friends, I took out a bank loan.”

“If I wanted to attack or hurt you, Mr. Prime Minister, where it hurts most," the former defense minister added, "I would remind you of what you said in 2008 about another prime minister, Ehud Olmert: ‘This is a prime minister up to his neck in investigations and he has no public or moral mandate to decide such important things in the State of Israel'.”

Later Wednesday, Lieberman said at an Yisrael Beiteinu faction meeting that "the two big parties bear the responsibility for an unnecessary election campaign." According to him, "beyond the ego battle that has been going on for months, in essence Likud and Kahol Lavan didn't want a unity government." 

Lieberman specifically went after Gantz's party, charging that "they behaved in a disgraceful way and deceived their voters."