The election for Israel's 20th Knesset will be held on March 17, Knesset faction heads decided on Wednesday. Final approval of the date must still be given by members of the factions themselves, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said.
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On Wednesday evening, lawmakers voted 22-0 to dissolve parliament in a first reading. There were no abstentions. The vote came a few hours after the bill passed a preliminary Knesset reading, with a 84-0 vote in favor, and one abstention.
The umbrella proposal gives the Knesset three-to-five months to prepare for elections following dissolution. The proposal must be brought for two more readings at the Knesset plenum next week. Once approved, the Knesset will head to elections recess.
The path for elections was set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Tuesday fired Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and accused them in a combative televised address of mounting a “putsch” against him and forcing the need for “swift elections.”
Observers believe Netanyahu is aiming for as short an election campaign as possible.
The deadline will be tight for the parties themselves. Netanyahu clarified on Tuesday that he had no plans to create a right-wing bloc, while theoretical talk of a center-left bloc are expected to be fast tracked. The Arab parties are also considering now whether to run on a united list.
The parties must also choose their Knesset lists: MK Isaac Herzog has already been chosen to lead Labor in the next election, but the rest of the list has not been set. Likud will hold chairman elections on January 6, and elections for its list will follow. Habayit Hayehudi will hold elections on January 5. Meretz chairman Zahava Gal-On is in the middle of a four year term, and her list will be determined by the party commission in the coming weeks.
In a speech on Tuesday following his dismissal of Lapid and Livni, Netanyahu accused the two ministers of being soft against Iran and the Palestinians, and soft in their defense of Jerusalem and of Israel as the Jewish nation-state.
Lapid, he said, undermined Israel’s “aggressive policy against Iran’s nuclear program” by criticizing the prime minister’s decision to boycott Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s speech at the UN General Assembly.
The Yesh Atid leader also undermined the government’s policy to demand that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, Netanyahu said, noting that Lapid said in an interview that he didn’t think it was necessary to make that demand.
Both Lapid and Livni criticized plans to build some 1,000 housing units in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem located beyond the Green Line, with Livni saying the move was “irresponsible,” Netanyahu continued.
“Well, Livni is the last one who can preach to anyone about responsibility,” he said. “In May of this year she met with Mahmoud Abbas in complete contrast to the cabinet’s decision not meet with him at the time, as well as against my explicit order not to hold the meeting. Later she went on to say, while serving as the justice minister, ‘Netanyahu’s boycott of Abbas is stupid.’ And today she once against attacked the government under my leadership.”
In response, Lapid blamed Netanyahu for “wasting billions” – the new election is expected to cost some 2 billion shekels ($500 million) – and damaging the country with his decision.
“We had an alternative, and a good alternative,” said Lapid at the Energy Utility Conference in Tel Aviv. “Instead of wasting billions of shekels on an unnecessary election campaign, instead of paralyzing the Israeli economy, we could have passed a socially oriented budget, added billions of shekels to education, health and welfare, public security, continue with the national housing plan that increased the supply dramatically, and given young couples a discount of over 200,000 shekels on new apartments through zero VAT and the targeted price plan.
“There was an increase of billions to the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment in this budget,” added Lapid, who called on Netanyahu and other party leaders to leave the IDF out of politics and the election campaign.
Livni, for her part, slammed Netanyahu’s dismissal of her as a move aimed at removing the “gatekeeper of Israeli democracy.”
At an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, Livni, head of the Hatnuah party, maintained, “The elections are not over zero-VAT [Lapid’s controversial plan to cancel value-added tax on first-time home purchases], but about whether there will be a Zionist or extremist country here.” She said the elections would be between a Zionist camp and dangerous, extreme parties that must be prevented from taking over and destroying the country.
“Can the center camp present a realistic alternative for replacing the government in Israel?” she told the audience. “For this to happen, we need all the forces to unite and present such an alternative – certainly, to the degree that it depends on me.”
Netanyahu’s move found the opposition parties rolling out their campaign messages.
Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog, chairman of the center-left Labor party, said, “The people have no faith in this government. We must hold elections as soon as possible and replace the [government]. The Labor Party will lead the bloc that will win the elections and give hope and a new reality to the citizens of Israel.”
MK Zahava Gal-On, chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz, said both Lapid and Netanyahu “failed in everything they did during this term, including the basic attempt to keep this government together. New elections is the necessary step.”
MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) aimed his barbs at Lapid, saying,
“Everyone understands that the coming elections have no connection to the Haredim. Let Yair Lapid explain to the public what he did as finance minister and the head of a party with 19 [Knesset] seats for two years. The Haredi public is not involved in this game.”
The people, added Gafni, “have already learned that and will not buy the baseless recycled claims. The man [Lapid] has failed in everything and in every step he took and the people will have their say.”
Netanyahu’s move to bring down and government and go to early elections followed a meeting late Monday night with Lapid, in which the finance minister rejected the conditions set by Netanyahu for keeping the present government in power. These included supporting the Jewish nation-state bill, freezing the zero VAT plan, stopping his “sabotage” of the government and the prime minister, transferring billions of shekels to the Defense Ministry for training and equipment, and freeing the funds for the moving of army training bases to the Negev.
Lapid called the meeting a “show.” “Netanyahu is leading Israel into unnecessary elections. The prime minister has chosen to act irresponsibly with respect to the nation, and to put the needs of the Israeli public at the bottom of his agenda,” said a Yesh Atid statement issued after it broke up. “Netanyahu prefers a deal he made with the Haredim on moving up the elections over the interests of all Israeli citizens.”
A Likud statement following the meeting read, “Yair Lapid has failed miserably in managing the economy. He made a fool of himself and failed in his effort to lure the ultra-Orthodox into a revolt against the prime minister. Lapid continues to lash out, threaten to undermine the government in which he serves, and cook a political deal with [Hatnuah’s] Tzipi Livni – all out of obsolete, ugly and narrow political interests.
“Netanyahu,” read the statement, “insists that the state budget be responsible, and assure security and the continued empowerment of the IDF while also dealing immediately with the prices of housing and food, as opposed to the political and irresponsible budget being advanced by Lapid.”