Israel headed for new elections after government collapse

Israel headed for new elections after government collapse
"I'm happy to say that today Israel and Europe are on a very strong and positive trajectory." European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Israel’s Prime-Minister Naftali Bennett at their meeting in Jerusalem on 14 June, credit: Haim Zach (GPO)

The fragile Israeli coalition government collapsed on Monday evening after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced that they will hold a vote on dissolving the parliament.

The bill to dissolve the parliament is expected to come up for its first vote of four required votes already on Wednesday. It will result in an uncertain transition period and might in the long-term threaten Israel’s democracy and relations with other countries. It was only a week ago that European Commission President von der Leyen visited Israel to deepen the EU-Israeli partnership.

The collapse was sudden but came as no surprise following the struggle in recent weeks for keeping the government together. The straw that broke the government was a member of the Prime-Minister’s own party who told him that he would vote with the opposition against extending the emergency regulations applying Israeli law for Israeli citizens on the West Bank since the six-days war in 1967.

Realising that his government could not survive, Bennett acted decisively and decided to resign rather than see this happen. The emergency regulations are extended every five years. Once new elections are called the regulations – the legal basis for Israelis living in the settlements – are extended automatically until three months after a new government is sworn in.

According to the coalition agreement, Lapid who also served as alternate Prime Minister, will replace Bennett as Prime Minister of a care-taker government until elections are held in Autumn, likely on 25 October. Lapid might even serve a longer period if the elections will not result in a new government with a parliamentary majority supporting it.

The government lost its razor-thin majority, 61 mandates out of 120, after half of the parliament members belonging to Bennett’s own party – that he himself had selected – deserted him and decided to vote for the opposition or abstain from voting. The opposition was prepared to vote against its own ideology to overthrow the government.

Former Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never accepted his loss of power. The opposition decried the new government as illegitimate and tried to lure members of parliament to switch loyalty by offering them posts in a new government if it would return to power. Netanyahu did not hide his delight as soon as the collapse of the government was announced.

In his view, the Bennett government had completely failed. He promised that he will ensure that a right-wing government will “bring back national pride”, reduce the high cost of living, sign peace treaties with more Arab countries (but not the Palestinians) and restore security in the country – and this without relying on any “terrorist” Arab partners in the government.

The election campaign ahead of Israel’s fifth parliamentary elections in three and a half years will probably become more vicious than usual with incitement and fake news.  In fact, the short-lived Bennett government, composed of rightist, centre and leftist parties, succeeded in restoring a sense of decency and cooperation in Israel’s polarised society and political system.

Israel weathered new COVID-19 waves without any lockdowns and became a world frontrunner in booster vaccination. The Bennett government passed a state budget in the parliament, returned people to the labour market and reduced the budget deficit. Measures to fight the high crime rate in the Arab society and to provide more funding to Arab municipalities were also implemented.

Furthermore, the coalition included for the first time an Arab Muslim party (United Arab List), which focused on improving the living conditions for the Arab minority in Israel, on equal terms with Jewish citizens. The other Arab party group (Joint List), a nationalistic group, focused on identity politics and did not care very much if the government would collapse.

If Netanyahu manages to return to power, it will also be Bennett’s own doing. Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of breach of trust, fraud and corruption and is currently on trial. He has turned down a plea bargain which would prevent him running for political posts. His only chance to evade justice is to return to power and transform Israel to an illiberal democracy as some countries in the EU.

The Bennett government had a golden opportunity to prevent this from happening by enacting a law requiring an indicted Prime Minister to resign. This is already the case for government ministers. Bennett hesitated because such a law was not part of the coalition agreement. Moreover, his second hand in his party, the minister of interior, opposed the legislation.

At least the transfer of power to Yair Lapid, the alternate Prime Minister, appears to be smooth. In his acceptance speech, Yair Lapid observed that what Israel needs most of all are governance reforms. At stake are also the restoration of good relations with the EU that the Bennett government has achieved, as was demonstrated during Commission President von der Leyen’s visit to Israel last week.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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