JERUSALEM — Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will take steps in the coming days to dissolve parliament and topple his own government a year after he takes office, a process that will automatically lead to new elections within a few months. The dissolution bill is scheduled for a preliminary vote on Wednesday.
Mr Bennett’s coalition had started with a wafer-thin majority and recently lost it, making it impossible to govern.
A new election will give Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and now the leader of the opposition, the chance for a comeback, even if he fights corruption charges. Yet his way back to power is far from assured.
Barring the unlikely scenario that Mr Netanyahu or another party leader could form an alternative coalition with at least 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, Israelis will return to the polls in the fall for the fifth time in less than four years.
Here are some reasons.
What kind of government does Israel have?
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a proportional representation electoral system. No party has ever received enough votes for an absolute majority in parliament. Instead, the larger parties must form coalitions by enlisting the support of smaller parties who negotiate to protect their limited interests and who often exercise disproportionate power.
The last few years have been especially tumultuous. Between April 2019 and March 2021, Israel held four elections that did not end definitively, with a parliament roughly split between parties in alliance with Mr. Netanyahu, who held office for a total of 15 years, and those who opposed his attempts to the power to stay.
Why did the government fall this time?
Mr Bennett, the leader of a small, right-wing party, has led an unwieldy coalition of eight parties made up of political opponents from the right, left and center with clashing ideological agendas, including the first independent Arab party to join an Israeli governing coalition .
Called the “kumbaya coalition” by some, its partners were bound by their desire to restore a sense of national unity and stability — and primarily to remove Mr Netanyahu from office after 12 consecutive years.
But tensions within the coalition over policy issues and continued pressure from Netanyahu and his allies led to two members of Bennett’s party, Yamina, leaving the coalition. Several left-wing and Arab lawmakers also revolted in key voices, leading to government paralysis and then implosion.
So who is leading Israel right now?
Once the dissolution of Parliament is finally approved, most likely before the end of June, Mr Bennett will hand over power to Yair Lapid, the centrist foreign minister and a former television personality, who will lead a caretaker government for at least a few months, until the elections and for the duration of the protracted coalition negotiations that are likely to follow.
Under the terms of the coalition agreement, Mr Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, Israel’s second-largest party after Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, is set to take over Mr Bennett as prime minister in August 2023.
But the deal included a safety clause in case the government didn’t last that long. It stipulated that if parliament were to be dissolved due to the actions of right-wing coalition members, as is the case, Mr Lapid would automatically become acting prime minister of the interim government.
When is the next election and who will participate?
No date has yet been set for the election, but consensus seems to be emerging that it will take place in late October or early November.
Netanyahu and his Likud party lead in the polls, followed by Lapid and Yesh Atid. Mr Bennett, whose Yamina party only had six seats in parliament when he was sworn in last year, does not appear to have received much additional support.
The leader of the party that gets the most votes usually gets the first chance to form a government. Mr Bennett’s case was highly unusual: he served as Prime Minister because he was seen as the most acceptable to the right wing of the diverse coalition.
Will next time be different?
A fifth election should not yield a more definitive result or a more stable government than the previous four, according to analysts.
“We’ve been in this movie four times and we could get similar results a fifth time,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“On Netanyahu’s side, there could be 1000 elections,” Professor Rahat added. “He’s willing to shuffle the deck over and over until he wins.”
Mr Netanyahu’s allies hope the disappointment with Mr Bennett’s government will send the voters on the right who failed Mr Netanyahu back to the pro-Netanyahu camp.
Understand the collapse of the Israeli government
A fragile coalition. Israel appears to be heading for its fifth election in three years after officials said the governing coalition will vote to dissolve parliament. Here is an overview of some of the factors that led to the collapse of the government:
“A lot of people have changed their minds,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud lawmaker and former government minister, pointing to polls showing an erosion of support for some parties in Mr Bennett’s coalition.
But unless Netanyahu triumphs and forms the next government, Ben Caspit, a political commentator and author of two Netanyahu biographies, said this could be his last election campaign, as some of his political allies seem less likely to tolerate another failure.
What issues fuel the debate?
This latest political upheaval comes amid an escalation in a clandestine struggle between Israel and Iran. And the conflict with the Palestinians hovers over any election.
This time around, the spotlight will likely be on the integration of Israel’s Arab parties into the national government. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to delegitimize Mr. Bennett’s government as being “dependent on supporters of terrorism”, referring to the Arab politicians who are citizens of Israel.
Centrist and left-wing Israelis refute that a Netanyahu government will depend on far-right extremists.
Netanyahu has promised more peace deals with once hostile countries. With the help of the Trump administration, he had established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
The rising cost of living and exorbitant house prices are perhaps the most troubling for many voters.
Critics of Netanyahu said that if he returned to power, Israel’s own democracy would be at stake as his allies call for the curtailment of the justice system and the cancellation of his trial.
“He wants to destroy Israeli democracy and set up a corrupt dictatorship without courts and with a media that serves him,” said Or-Ly Barlev, an Israeli social activist and independent journalist. “We are on the edge of a chasm.”