Israel’s government falls, national elections set for March

Israelis will head to the ballot box for the fourth time in two years, with opinion polls showing another stalemate.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Israel’s national unity government finally collapsed Wednesday when the Knesset failed to approve a national budget as required by law, forcing a national election in three months’ time.

It will be the fourth time in two years that Israelis will head to the polls. The previous elections in March of 2020 were the third in a row with inconclusive results in which no political party could muster a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Faced with a growing coronavirus pandemic, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz went back on a previous promise never to sit in a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and crossed the floor to join a unity government in order to handle the health and economic crisis.

Under their coalition agreement, the two would share power with Netanyahu serving 18 months as prime minister and Gantz scheduled to take the helm in November, 2021. However, Netanyahu balked at passing a national budget by the end of the year, a step required by law, but which would also have stabilized the government enough to give Gantz his chance to take over as prime minister.

Both sides accused the other of breaching the coalition agreement and neither would agree on conditions to either approve the budget, or pass emergency legislation to extend the deadline that expired at midnight on Tuesday.

“We are against elections; this is a wrong decision by Blue and White,” Netanyahu said in a televised address Tuesday evening. “But If elections are forced upon us, I promise you we will win.”

Gantz fired back, saying the prime minister was giving “more lies than words. Netanyahu has pushed us to elections only because he doesn’t want to go to court – anything else is nothing more than spin and trickery.”

As time ran out Tuesday night, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Netanyahu’s Likud Party pounded his gavel and declared the house to be dissolved.

“At 00:00, the mandate ends, and since the state budget for 2020 has not been approved, I announce the dissolution of the 23rd Knesset. We are in a complex and challenging period, yet also one of many controversies,” Levin said. “The controversy that exists in the public, found its expression naturally here in this building as well.”

“We are embarking on a difficult election campaign. I call on each and every one of us, and each and every one of the citizens of Israel, to refrain from escalating tensions and to do everything possible so that the election campaign is conducted and ended in an orderly manner and without violence,” Levin added.

What Happens Now?

The dissolution of parliament does not mean an end to the work of government. The government continues to function in a caretaker capacity, meaning it works to keep the country going, but is prevented from passing new legislation or setting new policies.

All ministers will continue to run their ministries. Knesset committees will continue to meet and deal with issues until the next government is sworn in after the March elections.

The elections are supervised by the multi-party Central Elections Committee (CEC) of the Knesset that is presided over by a Supreme Court judge. The CEC manages the running of the elections including registering the parties and candidates, financing the election campaigns, organizing and managing the thousands of polling stations on election day, counting the ballots, publishing the election results and handling any appeals.

A new website for the election has already been created with information in Hebrew, Arabic and English that will be filled in with all the information voters require over the coming weeks.

The next significant date is the final day for political parties to submit their lists of candidates, expected to be on Thursday, February 4. Until then, new parties can register to run and existing parties can negotiate mergers to run as a larger slate with a combined election platform.

For example in the previous election, Gantz’s Blue and White party teamed up with Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Telem headed by former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon. Although the three parties ran together, they split, preferring to sit in opposition, after Gantz announced he would join with Netanyahu.

A key factor in March may be the state of the pandemic in Israel as the country prepares for what appears to be an inevitable national lockdown before the end of December due to soaring infections. Although vaccinations against the coronavirus started this week and millions of doses are scheduled to be administered in the coming months, it remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect voting in three months time.

Election Polls

One of the central features of the campaign is the weekly public opinion polls that try to predict where Israeli public sentiment is heading. Each of the three main television channels in Israel run their own polls, as do the larger newspapers.

In a poll released Tuesday evening by Channel 12, Netanyahu’s Likud Party took 29 seats, up two seats from previous poll last week. A new party headed by Likud breakaway Gideon Saar garnered 18 seats. Lapid’s Yesh Atid combined with Telem won 16 seats. Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yemina came in with 13, the predominantly Arab Joint List 11, the Jewish religious Shas and United Torah Judaism 8, nationalist Yisrael Beitenu headed by Avigdor Liberman 7, the left-wing Meretz Party, 5.

Gantz’s Blue and White collapsed to only 5 seats. It had won 33 seats in the March 2020 vote.

With the election campaign officially in its first day, the polling numbers showed that Netanyahu does not have enough seats to form a right-wing coalition government of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yemina, as those parties together have only 58 seats. On the other side, a Saar-led coalition that could include Lapid, Bennett, Liberman and Gantz would also fall short of the 61 seats needed for a majority.