Israeli parliament moves to dissolve government, triggering possible new elections

JERUSALEM —Israel faced the prospect of political chaos once again Wednesday when lawmakers approved a preliminary measure to dissolve the turbulent coalition government, putting the country on a path to its fourth election in two years.

© Alex Kolomoisky/AP
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrives at the Israeli Knesset ahead of the vote on its dissolution, Dec. 2, 2020, in Jerusalem.

The vote of 61 to 54 to advance the proposal marked another escalation of a political crisis that has left the country with only a caretaker government for more than a year and a largely dysfunctional unity coalition during the mounting coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic collapse.

Wednesday’s bill does not take immediate effect. Negotiations among the feuding factions could still head off final action on the proposal as it moves to a parliamentary committee before coming back for three more votes by the full Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Among the issues to be negotiated will be the timing of elections.

[Israel may get its first government in months, but can it govern?]

But the push to topple the coalition got a major boost when Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party that shares power with Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, announced he would support ending the government.

Gantz, who battled Netanyahu to inconclusive results over three previous elections, agreed to join his rival in a coalition government in April as coronavirus cases were beginning to spiral. He became both the defense minister and an “alternate” prime minister scheduled to rotate into the top job in autumn 2021.

But after seven tumultuous months, he effectively declared the power-sharing effort sharing a failure, accusing Netanyahu of bad-faith political maneuvers meant to prolong his grip on power.

“I had no illusions about Netanyahu,” Gantz said in announcing his party’s support for the no-confidence bill. “I was well aware of his track record as a serial promise-breaker, but I thought that the people of Israel are more important than one leader, and that Netanyahu would rise to the occasion. Much to my dismay, that didn’t happen.”

Netanyahu, for his part, said it was Gantz who was threatening the country with greater instability even as covid-19 cases soar and Israel faces a possible third national lockdown. He said Tuesday that Likud members of parliament would vote against dissolving the government.

“Benny, what you need to do now is do a U-turn away from politics, for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

© Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israelis from the Centres For Social Justice wearing masks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, protest for the passage of the social budget and the dissolution of the Knesset, on Dec. 2, 2020 in Tel Aviv.

But the prime minister’s critics say he, too, is working to bring down the coalition government on a timeline more to his liking. Netanyahu and his allies in the cabinet have blocked passage of a state budget, even though a two-year budget is required by the agreement that he and Gantz signed to establish their uneasy coalition.

Opponents have howled that Netanyahu is committing gross neglect by denying agencies a budget as they fight the medical and economic crises, but he has not been swayed. If no budget is passed by Dec. 23, the Knesset would automatically be dissolved anyway, with elections to follow in March.

Netanyahu, who has seen his popularity rise and fall as the pandemic has battered the economy, is said to believe that elections later in the year, when a vaccine may have begun to ease the health crisis, would give him a better chance to win a larger majority and form a government without Gantz’s help.

Polls suggest that a combination of right-wing factions, including Likud, ultra-Orthodox groups and a party led by former defense minister Naftali Bennett, would command a clear majority of Knesset seats in a vote held today. Bennett, who has focused relentlessly on efforts to counter the pandemic, has seen his popularity soar and is positioned to play a kingmaker role in the coalition building that would follow elections.

Gantz, addressing the Knesset before the vote, said there was still time for the sides to reach a compromise, preserve the government and allow him his turn in the prime minister’s chair.

“If Netanyahu passes a budget, everything will work out,” he told lawmakers.

Tel Aviv University political scientist Udi Sommer said Gantz is bringing his reputation as a conciliator into what could be his final weeks in office. “He’s leaving the door open for this coalition to survive,” Sommer said.

At play in all the jockeying is the desire of both leaders not be tagged as the one who dragged an exhausted nation back to the voting booth, which could carry both political and practical costs. The coalition agreement requires the leader of the party responsible for calling early elections to step down, allowing the other to serve as the temporary head of the transition government.

But Netanyahu is motivated not just to block Gantz’s path to the premiership, political observers say, but by his own fight against charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust being tried in a Jerusalem court.

The prime minister has previously pressed parliament to grant him legal immunity from the prosecution, at least as long he remains in office. That gambit failed. But a larger right-wing majority legislature may do his bidding.

“All of this is only about his trial,” said Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “You cannot be a serious politician and not pass a budget in such conditions unless you are worried about your own personal survival.”

If the Knesset is ultimately dissolved, the coalition partners would keep their positions during the transition period before a new election. The government — frozen by dysfunction, unable to make senior agency appointments and squabbling over pandemic policy — will be even more hobbled as a caretaker body.

“We are expecting to enter a period of even greater paralysis,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former Knesset member who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

He predicted that the country’s cycle of failing governments and indecisive elections will endure as long as the embattled Netanyahu, who maintains a fiercely loyal following, remains at the center of the action.

“Israel’s two-year-long political crisis will continue as long as Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power and a government cannot be formed without him,” Plesner said.

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