Israel’s Knesset voted to disband itself Thursday morning, a little over 14 months after it convened and a year after the government was sworn in, sending the country reeling toward its fifth election since 2019, set for November 1.
Parliament voted to disperse 92–0.
Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid will formally succeed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as premier at midnight between Thursday and Friday. He will hold the post through the elections and until a new coalition is formed.
After the vote, Bennett and Lapid embraced and switched places, so that Lapid could sit in the premier’s seat. A low-key formal handover ceremony from Bennett to Lapid was set for Thursday afternoon.
Bennett will take the title of alternate prime minister and Lapid will retain the post of foreign minister. The rest of the government’s ministers will stay in place, and lawmakers will largely shift from legislating to campaigning.
Israel’s often unreliable opinion polls suggest another close election battle between parties supporting and opposing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But whereas Netanyahu and his allies (Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas and United Torah Judaism) won 52 seats in the March 2021 elections that led to the Bennett-Lapid coalition, the polls have shown the Netanyahu-led bloc now rising to 58-60 seats in the 120-member house, on the cusp of a majority.
Furthermore, current political alliances may shift, and several parties are polling close to the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation.
In a fiery address before the dispersal vote, Netanyahu predicted that he and his allies would return to power, “restore national pride” and “get Israel back on track to success,” after what he called the “failed experiment” of the Bennett-led government. Neither Bennett nor Lapid spoke at the Thursday Knesset session.
Lapid, who has four months until election day to battle Netanyahu and establish his own permanent prime ministerial credentials, will have the advantage of being the incumbent prime minister. In that role, he will host President Joe Biden next month, amid hints from American and Israeli leaders of imminent progress to boost Israel’s relations with key regional players.
On Wednesday evening, Bennett announced his intention to take a break from politics, saying that he would not run in the upcoming elections and handing over the leadership of his Yamina party to longtime ally Ayelet Shaked. But until a new government is formed, he pledged in his role as alternate prime minister to offer all assistance possible to Lapid, and he will continue to oversee Israel’s Iran policy.
As some lawmakers hugged and smiled following the drawn-out process to reach the decisive vote on Thursday morning, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy had to tell celebrants to keep it in line, saying “this isn’t a wedding” and asking people to stay in their seats.
Although lawmakers overwhelmingly supported preliminary legislation to disperse the Knesset a week ago, the full formal legislative process was delayed by haggling between coalition and opposition parties over issues including the upcoming election date and several major pending pieces of legislation.
While the coalition won its preferred election date, it failed to arrive at compromises necessary to pass key laws. One law that failed to win approval before the Knesset dispersed, the so-called Metro Law, would have enabled progress on an ambitious, Tel Aviv-centered metro project. Another piece of legislation on which coalition and opposition could not agree would have advanced Israel on the path toward obtaining visa-free travel to the United States.
Angry over the failure to pass the Metro Law, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli’s key project, the Labor Party sat out the dispersal vote. The laws relating to the US Visa Waiver Program failed, meanwhile, despite a direct appeal from the US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, to legislators to put Israel’s citizens first by voting it through.
The decision to dissolve the Knesset came right up to the wire, as Israel stood on the threshold of entering an unprecedented and chaotic legal situation in the West Bank: Settlers in the West Bank have Israeli legal status, though there is a separate legal treatment for Palestinians living in the same locations, based on emergency regulations that Israel put in place in 1967 and that must be renewed every five years. The current regulations were to expire Thursday at midnight and, in one of the events that precipitated the coalition’s demise, the government was unable to muster support to pass the renewal against an opposition determined to block even laws it ideologically supports in order to bring about the government’s end.
The regulations will now be automatically extended for six months, because the Knesset disbanded before their renewal, postponing the fight to the election campaign and new coalition formation process.
Bennett cited this need to trigger an extension of the settler law as one of the two immediate catalysts for his decision last week to turn the lights off on his own government. The second was that a member of his own party was prepared to vote for the Knesset’s disbandment, lending the opposition an apparent majority on the issue.
Last Monday, Bennett and Lapid surprised the nation and many of their coalition partners by announcing their intention to wind down their coalition and send Israel back to elections. The big tent coalition incorporated parties from right, left, and centrist corners of Israel’s political spectrum, including Ra’am, the first Islamist party to join a coalition. In an alliance formed to prevent then-prime minister Netanyahu from retaining power after 12 consecutive years at Israel’s helm, the coalition endeavored to put ideology aside and focus on socioeconomic and governance issues.
However, it was the nationalist and ideological issues that ultimately broke the coalition apart. Struggling since losing its one-seat majority in April, the coalition finishes as a 59-seat minority, with a number of MKs who voted against the political alliance despite sitting with it.
In the debate preceding Thursday’s dispersal vote, Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovksy attacked her fellow coalition members for a lack of “discipline.”
“Whoever wants to be in coalition needs to learn discipline. That’s the takeaway we all need to learn here,” Malinovsky said. Her remarks came hours after coalition leaders had rejected demands made by the opposition as its price for backing the Metro Law — demands that included reversing the formal designation of “defector” to a Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli, who for the past year voted with the Netanyahu-led opposition.
While Malinovsky’s remarks echo many made by coalition leaders over the past weeks — from Lapid to Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar — about the need to abide by coalition discipline, others chose to focus Thursday on where the coalition did succeed.
Always the coalition’s optimist, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas said that the coalition showed that cooperation between Israel’s Arabs and Jews was possible.
“It’s possible to work together,” he told the plenum in the debate preceding the dispersal, following remarks made in Arabic.
“We didn’t find that there was such a big [gap] between all of the parties,” he added, saying instead that coalition problems were caused by individual MKs who did not share his understanding of the situation.
“I’d give this coalition another mandate in the future to continue,” the Ra’am chief said.
Led by Netanyahu, opposition MKs were less sanguine.
Consistent with previous messaging, Netanyahu slammed the Bennett-Lapid government as a poor performer which he claimed was reliant on “supporters of terror.” Netanyahu and opposition MKs routinely denigrated Ra’am as “terror supporters” throughout the government’s tenure, despite the fact that Netanyahu was widely reported to have courted Ra’am’s support himself last year in a failed bid to build a coalition.
“Everyone who listens to the citizens of Israel sees that something fundamental has gone wrong in the past year in our country,” Netanyahu said.
“Personal security was undermined, national honor was humiliated, fear of our enemies increased, Israeli flags were removed and PLO flags were raised,” he said, referring to the Palestinian flag, which lawmakers recently voted to ban at state-funded institutions.
“The cost of living is hitting us all in the pocket… The general feeling is that the state is being wiped out under our feet. It’s a colossal failure by a government that has no vision… and no capacity to act.
“You promised change, talked about healing, ran an experiment, and the experiment failed. This is what happens when you take fake right-wing and the extreme left, mix it with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Joint List, that’s what you get. That’s exactly what the upcoming elections are about,” he said.
He said a government led by Likud would “return pride, strength, and hope to Israel.”
Netanyahu also added that he would not form a government reliant upon Arab parties, echoing comments he made earlier this week.
Now that the dispersal is finalized, the government moves into caretaker status. The Knesset’s legislative plenum will cease to meet, unless convened by a majority of lawmakers. PJC