Explained: Why Israel is headed to its 5th election in 3 years, and what now

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Israel’s fragile and short-lived coalition government announced on Monday that it would submit a bill next week to dissolve Parliament, setting the stage for a fifth election in three years, and the possible return to power of the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s four previous elections between 2019 and 2021 were basically plebiscites on whether Netanyahu could rule while facing trial on serious corruption charges. Netanyahu, who was indicted in November 2019, has denied the allegations.
Once the bill is passed, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing political alliance Yamina, will step down, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the liberal centrist Yesh Atid party, will become interim PM until a new government is formed, according to the ruling coalition’s power-sharing agreement. Elections will take place in the fall, according to commentators.

The ideologically divided coalition — the most diverse in Israel’s history — lost its thin majority in April following a defection by a lawmaker of Bennett’s Yamina. The government faced its biggest setback on June 6, after the opposition, along with rebel coalition members, helped defeat a bill intended to renew legal protections for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.Israel does not have a written constitution, and according to its Basic Laws, elections to Parliament are held every four years, unless the Knesset decides by an ordinary majority to dissolve and trigger early elections.

Unlike in India, Israeli voters vote for parties, not specific candidates. All Israeli citizens aged 18 and older are eligible to vote. Palestinians living on Israeli occupied territory cannot vote.

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, and to form the government, a party needs at least 61. However, no party has ever won a majority on its own, and ruling alliances comprising 8-12 parties have been the norm. These parties represent interests of specific groups, and the constituents of a coalition may hold positions that are contradictory or competing.

After the members of the Knesset have been elected, Israel’s President chooses the candidate that he believes has the best chance of forming a coalition. The candidate, often the leader of the largest party, is given 28 days, with a possible extension of a fortnight, to form the government.

After winning his fourth term in 2015, Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party was able to put together a ruling coalition at the eleventh hour. But he was forced to dissolve Parliament and hold snap elections in April 2019, following the resignation of his Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Netanyahu, however, was unable to secure the seats to form a government, and another election followed in September 2019. But again, neither Netanyahu nor his rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party were able to form the government.

In the Israeli system, the only way to break a deadlock is to keep holding elections until someone gets a majority, so a third election was held in March 2020 — which again, was inconclusive.

In April 2020, Netanyahu was able to form an “emergency” coalition government with his principal rival Gantz. This tenuous alliance would only last seven months; in December, the fragmented ruling coalition was unable to pass the budget in the Knesset, triggering a fourth election in March 2021.

A new coalition

Netanyahu, who remained caretaker Prime Minister throughout this period, finally lost power after 12 years in June 2021, as the Knesset approved Bennett as the new Prime Minister. Lapid was to replace him in two years, based on the coalition agreement.

The eight-party coalition included both left-wing and right-wing parties, and both secular and religious groups. For the first time, an Arab party, the United Arab List or Ra’am, entered government. These parties had very little in common; what united them essentially was the desire to remove Netanhayu from power. From almost day 1, critics and commentators predicted this impulse would not be enough to hold the extraordinarily broad alliance together.

What happens now

As Israel waits for elections — likely at the end of October because of legal constraints and holiday delays — Netanyahu has called the developments “great news for millions of Israeli citizens”, and vowed to return to office as Prime Minister.