Israel to hold election rerun after coalition deadlock

Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected to a fifth term last month but has been unable to form a government

epa07606467 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a media statement in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem, 27 May 2019. According to local reports, coalition negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party and Lieberman's party did not succeed as a 29 May deadline is looming to form a government.  EPA/ABIR SULTAN
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Seven weeks after being re-elected as Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is returning to the campaign trail after he failed to form a ruling coalition while racing against a Wednesday deadline.

Just after midnight on Thursday, Israel's parliament voted 74 to 45 to dissolve itself, paving the way for elections in September.

The unprecedented standoff was ostensibly over a dispute between a right-wing secular party led by Avigdor Lieberman and a bloc of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties about a law drafting ultra-religious Jews into the military.

The dispute reflected deep divides in Israeli society over the role of religion. But it also exposed the political and personal divide over Mr Netanyahu’s entrenched position as Israel’s leader.

After the vote, Mr Netanyahu blamed Mr Lieberman and vowed to win again. He denounced Mr Lieberman as coming from "the left" and bringing down a right-wing government. Mr Lieberman, who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, shot back that he wanted a right-wing government, not an ultra-religious one.

On Thursday, Israel's political parties and political hopefuls began what will be a month's long dance of trying to woo voters and coalition partners. Mr Netanyahu's main competitor in the last election, the Blue and White party, a coalition of centrist politicians led by former military chief Benny Gantz, confirmed on Thursday that it was back in the race.

Other politicians who did not make it past the electoral threshold in the last election – like right-wing libertarian Moshe Fieglen and the extreme right due of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet – were reportedly shopping around options for their comeback. Ultra-orthodox leaders, meanwhile, vowed not to sit in a government with Mr Lieberman.

Mr Netanyahu was re-elected to a fifth term as prime minister in April. But to formally set his government, he needed to build a ruling coalition of at least 61 seats out of the 120 in the Israeli Parliament, or Knesset.

Mr Netanyhu in theory had the votes, but Mr Lieberman would not join unless the prime minister ensured his version of a draft bill for conscripting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military was passed.

The ultra-Orthodox parties, also a part of Mr Netanyahu’s expected coalition, rejected the law because it provided conscription quotas that they opposed.

Labour party leader Avi Gabbay said that Mr Netanyahu offered it a deal to join a coalition, which he rejected.

If Mr Netanyahu were unable to form a government, then the party with the next largest mandate – the Blue and White party in this case – would have a chance.

But to prevent his opponents to the centre and left from having a chance to take over, Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party set in motion a legal process to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections, hoping they would win again.

Yesterday, Israeli politicians from across the spectrum were quick to condemn or support the move for another election.

Moshe Kahlon, head of the economic-focused Kulanu party, announced on Tuesday that if elections were held his party would run on a joint list with Likud.

Mr Kahlon, who used to be a member of the party, had previously pledged not to.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has been at odds with Mr Netanyahu over the latter’s incitement towards Arabs, said he would do everything in his power to “prevent the state of Israel from going to another election campaign”.

But in practice, Mr Rivlin has little control if the Knesset votes to dissolve itself.

Israeli opposition MPs started a filibuster yesterday to block the passage of the bill to dissolve Parliament, before stopping it when it became clear no other party would be able to form a ruling coalition either.

As part of the move, Palestinian Arab politician Aida Suleiman spoke on the floor about violence in Arab communities in Israel and denounced the government's and public’s lack of interest.

Arab MP Ayman Odeh tweeted that rather than Israel’s right wing spending millions of shekels on a new election, they could use the money to invest in Israel’s marginalised Arab communities.

Mr Netanyahu faces a looming indictment for several corruption cases. He had reportedly hoped that his new government would pass a law granting him immunity from persecution while in office – a plan that a return to elections would make impossible.

Israel's Arab parties voted to dissolve the Parliament, reportedly to thwart the US "Deal of the Century" for an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and perhaps to reunite in the coming election to increase their chances.

Voter turnout among Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel was very low in the April vote, partly because of frustration with internal divides. On Thursday, Arab parties announced they were looking to re-unite in a joint list for the next elections.