Israel is Going to New Elections Later This Year. What Just Happened?

Only 50 days after Israel’s 9 April elections, at midnight Israel-time on Wednesday 29 May, the 21st Knesset voted to dissolve itself — forcing new elections before a new government was even formed. This is a first in Israel’s history.

After a period of intense negotiations in the weeks after President Reuven Rivlin handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the opportunity to form a coalition, the prime minister failed to assemble a majority of Knesset to join his next government.

Why did this happen?

In the Israeli parliamentary system, after Knesset elections, the president is tasked with handing the opportunity to form a ruling coalition comprised of at least 61 members of Knesset to a member of Knesset — virtually always the leader of the party that has received the most votes.

The Impasse

The most proximate reason for this failure is that Prime Minister Netanyahu could not reach a consensus between two erstwhile members of his coalition, Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the hard-right, largely secular Yisrael Beitenu party, and the Ultra-Orthodox parties. They were unable to resolve their differences over Israel’s military draft law, which had previously passed Knesset, because the Ultra-Orthodox parties committed to key reforms exempting yeshiva students from military service, while Lieberman insisted on reinstating the original version of the bill passed while he was defence minister in the last Knesset.

Nobody knew what Lieberman, a former close associate but now a bitter rival of the prime minister, was really up to. Was he bluffing, building maximal leverage to enter Netanyahu’s next government from a position of increased power? Or was he, either because of principled opposition to the draft law or animosity toward the prime minister (or both), truly willing to torpedo the formation of a new right-wing government?

The Options

If Netanyahu was unable to bridge these differences and announce the formation of a new government by midnight, there were two possible alternatives. First, the deadline would run out and President Rivlin would hand the opportunity to form a government to another member of Knesset, likely the leader of the next largest party, MK Benny Gantz (Blue and White). The other option was for the Knesset to pass a motion to dissolve itself, forcing new elections.

Lieberman did not budge. And the Knesset, led by Netanyahu’s Likud Party, voted for new elections.

The Vote

Just after midnight, 74 Knesset members voted for dissolution, including Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and the majority-Arab parties. 45 MKs voted against the motion, including the largest opposition parties. Elections will be held on 17 September.

What did we learn during coalition negotiations?

While this turn of events might seem like we are winding back the clock – a repeat of the last elections, the truth is that we are not in the same place where we started when elections were called the last time.

That is because we learned what the terms were for the next prospective government. We learned the scope of the assaults on an independent judiciary and the balance of powers contemplated as the basis of a coalition. And we know that what the prime minster failed to assemble tonight was a government premised on unconditional immunity from criminal responsibility, constitutional reforms to dismantle to power of the Supreme Court, and a commitment to annexation of the West Bank.

All of these challenges to Israeli democracy hang in the air as Israelis prepare for yet another round of elections.

Where will we be?

The New Israel Fund will be at the ready — as we always are — defending Israel’s democratic institutions, protecting minority rights, and the integrity of the democratic process and the rule of law.

We will stand up for the right of every citizen to exercise their right to vote.

We will stand with civil society and for a robust Arab-Jewish partnership on behalf of a democratic future for all Israelis.

And of course, you can count on NIF to keep you informed about the most pressing developments affecting the issues you care about.