Why does Israel have so many elections?


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett plans in the coming days to dissolve parliament and overthrow his own government a year after taking office, a process that will automatically trigger new elections in a few months. The dissolution bill was scheduled for a preliminary vote on Wednesday, with a final vote most likely on Monday.

Mr Bennett’s coalition started with a very slim majority and recently lost it, making it ungovernable.

A new election will give Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and now opposition leader, the chance for a comeback even as he battles corruption charges. However, his return to power is far from certain.

Barring an unlikely scenario where Mr. Netanyahu or another party leader can form an alternative coalition commanding at least 61 of the 120-seat parliament, Israelis will return to the polls in the fall for the fifth time in less than four years.

Here are some reasons.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a proportional representation electoral system. No party has ever won enough votes to secure an absolute majority in Parliament. Instead, large parties must form coalitions by gaining the support of smaller parties that negotiate to protect their narrow interests and often end up wielding disproportionate power.

The last few years have been particularly tumultuous. Between April 2019 and March 2021, Israel held four elections that ended inconclusively, with a parliament roughly split between parties allied with Mr Netanyahu, who served a total of 15 years in power, and those who s oppose his attempts to stay in power.

Dubbed the “Kumbaya coalition” by some, its partners were bound by their desire to restore a sense of national unity and stability – and most importantly, to overthrow Mr Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in power.

But tensions within the coalition over political issues and relentless pressure from Mr. Netanyahu and his allies led two members of Mr. Bennett’s party, Yamina, to quit the coalition. Several left-wing and Arab lawmakers also rebelled in key votes, leading to government paralysis and then an implosion.

Once the dissolution of parliament is finally approved, most likely before the end of June, Mr Bennett will hand over power to Yair Lapid, the centrist foreign minister and former television personality, who will lead a caretaker government for several months at least, until the elections and throughout the lengthy coalition negotiations that may follow.

Under the terms of the coalition deal, Mr. Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, Israel’s second-largest party after Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, was supposed to succeed Mr. Bennett as prime minister in August 2023.

But the deal included a safety clause in case the government didn’t last that long. It stipulated that if parliament was dissolved due to the actions of right-wing coalition members, as it is, Mr Lapid would automatically become caretaker prime minister.

No date has yet been set for the election, but a consensus seems to be emerging for it to take place in late October or early November.

The leader of the party that receives the most votes is usually given the first chance to form a government. Mr. Bennett’s case was highly unusual: he served as prime minister because he was seen as most acceptable to the right flank of the diverse coalition.

A fifth election may not produce a more definitive result or a more stable government than the previous four, analysts say.

“We’ve been in this movie four times and we can get similar results a fifth time,” said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“For Netanyahu, there may be 1,000 elections,” Professor Rahat added. “He’s ready to shuffle the game again and again until he wins.”

Allies of Mr. Netanyahu hope that disappointment with Mr. Bennett’s government will propel right-wing voters who had abandoned Mr. Netanyahu into the pro-Netanyahu camp.

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“A lot of people have changed their minds,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Likud MK and former minister, citing opinion polls that show an erosion of support for some parties in Mr. Bennett’s coalition.

But unless Mr. Netanyahu wins a victory and forms the next government, said Ben Caspit, a political commentator and author of two Netanyahu biographies, this could be his last election campaign, as some of his political allies seem less inclined. to tolerate another failure.

This latest political upheaval comes amid an escalation in a clandestine battle between Israel and Iran. And the conflict with the Palestinians hangs over every election.

This time, the integration of Israel’s Arab parties into the national government is likely to be in the spotlight. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to delegitimize Mr. Bennett’s government as being “dependent on supporters of terrorism,” referring to Arab politicians who are citizens of Israel.

Centrist and left-wing Israelis counter that a Netanyahu government will depend on far-right extremists.

Mr Netanyahu has promised more peace deals with formerly hostile countries. With the help of the Trump administration, he had established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

The rising cost of living and exorbitant housing prices are perhaps most troubling to many voters.

Critics of Mr Netanyahu have said that if he returns to power, Israel’s very democracy would be at stake as his allies call for restrictions on the justice system and the annulment of his trial.

“He wants to crush Israeli democracy and set up a corrupt dictatorship without courts and with a media that serves him,” said Or-Ly Barlev, an Israeli social activist and freelance journalist. “We are on the edge of an abyss.


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