As recently as March, it looked as if Israel had finally managed to scrape together the semblance of a functioning government following four elections in two years that had left the country in political paralysis.
Israel heads to fifth election, and its democracy is on the line
On March 23, the first anniversary of that fourth election, the “coalition of change” led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, with its eight diverse parties, celebrated just over nine months in charge. The unlikely gamble by a group of diverse parties, including right-wing Orthodox Jews, Islamists and left-wingers – and held together mainly by a desire to keep former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power – appeared to have paid off.
Then, suddenly, it all fell apart. A three-month process of internal deterioration began and an unstoppable downward spiral gained momentum. The result: On Wednesday, lawmakers will pass the final vote for the dissolution of the Knesset and a new election will be held on either October 25 or November 1.
How did this all happen? The “beginning of the end” was indisputably April 6.
On that day, Idit Silman, a member of Bennett’s Yamina party, dropped a bombshell on the governing coalition. In a surprise move ahead of the Passover holiday, she announced her resignation from the coalition, bolting to the opposition led by Likud and Netanyahu, calling for the coalition to be replaced by “a national, Jewish and Zionist government.”
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Her move followed a lengthy campaign of pressure and inducements from Netanyahu’s party, with the carrot of a promised spot on the opposition party’s slate in the next election. The stick was continuation of the harassment campaign that has been aimed at right-leaning coalition members since the government’s formation last year.
Silman hadn’t been the first member of Bennett’s right-wing, religious party to decide she couldn’t tolerate sitting in a coalition with the left-wing parties of Labor and Meretz, and the United Arab List. Yamina MK Amichai Chikli had jumped ship at the government’s establishment last June, creating a precarious situation in which the ruling coalition dropped from 62-58 to a razor-thin 61-59 Knesset majority.
But Silman’s defection was far more damaging, marking the end of that majority and bringing the count to 60-60, throwing the government into paralysis and beginning a countdown to its demise.
The next blow came on May 19, when Meretz lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi became the coalition’s next renegade, announcing that she too was abandoning her party’s leadership and refusing to vote with the coalition. This would make it a minority government, essentially sounding its death knell.
After three days of pressure, Rinawie Zoabi was convinced to officially return to the fold, in return for financial offerings to the Arab community.
But while the count was back to 60-60, the damage had been done: The exercise demonstrated that any single lawmaker now had the power to hold the weak coalition hostage.
That message was reinforced on May 25 when MK Michael Biton (Kahol Lavan) became next in line, announcing he would no longer vote with the governing coalition, except in no-confidence votes, until an agreement was reached on his pet concern: public transportation reform.
The land mine that ultimately blew up the government, though, did not come in the form of an individual but a piece of legislation.
The bill that subjected Israelis in the occupied West Bank to Israeli law was due to be renewed. The law, applying “emergency” regulations to settlers, has been in effect since 1967 and had been ratified every five years since. Right-wing coalition members, like New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, warned prophetically that if the legislation didn’t pass – potentially leading to legal chaos in the West Bank – the coalition was unlikely to survive.
Netanyahu’s Likud-led opposition seized the opportunity to embarrass the Bennett government by voting against their own pro-settlement ideology and refusing to renew the regulations, exposing the weakness of a coalition that was, in their words, “dependent on terror supporters” – which was a common insult aimed at the United Arab List and its leader Mansour Abbas.
Arab members of the coalition had indicated they would support the legislation that legitimized the occupation only if it would save the government. When it became clear that the opposition and Silman would oppose it, they saw no value in voting for it. Ultimately, 58 lawmakers voted against the legislation and 52 for it, with two Arab coalition members voting against and others abstaining.
The vote was the last straw for Nir Orbach, another conflicted right-wing Yamina lawmaker who had stuck with the coalition out of personal loyalty to Bennett. The failure to pass the West Bank legislation was a step too far for the pro-settler MK. On June 19, he told Bennett he would not vote with the coalition again until the law was passed.
That, it quickly became clear, was impossible.
With Orbach out of the picture, Netanyahu’s opposition forces knew they had enough votes to dissolve the Knesset and began to formulate a plan to do so – delaying the move just long enough to continue to attempt to chip off enough additional coalition members to form a majority of 61, which would allow them to return to power without an election.
Bennett and Lapid decided not to wait to find out what Likud would do or when they would do it. Seizing the narrative, they dropped their own bombshell on June 20, announcing that they would initiate the dissolution of the Knesset leading to a new election this autumn, transferring power to Lapid in the meantime as caretaker prime minister.
It was an admission that after a year of struggle, Netanyahu’s opposition had ultimately succeeded in exploiting the ideological divides within the “coalition of change” – and splitting it apart.
As a result, for the fifth time in three and a half years, Israelis will once again go to the polls seeking to accomplish something they have failed to achieve since March 2015: elect a government that finally manages to last.