Israel’s Dissolved Knesset
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF

On 9 April 2019, national election was held in Israel in which the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed victory. The ruling party, Likud maintained its lead in the 120 members Israeli Parliament, Knesset with 35 seats. Likud’s allies such as Shas at eight seats, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) at eight seats, Yisrael Beiteinu at eight seats, Union of the Right-wing Parties (URWP) at five seats and Kulanu at four seats indicated that Netanyahu would convincingly form the ruling coalition with 65 seats.1 However, after more than one and half months since the results, a division between the secular and religious factions within the ruling coalition resulted in Netanyahu failing to form a new government with 61 seats in the Knesset. Eventually, on 29 May 2019, the Knesset was dissolved and the fresh election would be held on 17 September 2019.

During the April election, the leader of Kahol Lavan, Benny Gantz was seen as a strong competitor against Netanyahu. Gantz, however, failed to attract centre-right voters and instead drew from Labour Party’s centre-left electoral base winning 35 seats. Gantz’s ideological allies from the centre-left parties such as Israel’s Grand Old Labour party managed to secure only six seats and Meretz won four seats. Pro-Arab parties such as Hadash Ta’al and United Arab List won six and four seats respectively.2

The electoral system in Israel is based on a proportional representation system in which members of Knesset (MK) are not directly elected but appear as part of lists that participate in the elections. After the elections, the list of candidates who have passed the qualifying threshold of 3.25 percent secure Knesset seats proportional to the party’s electoral strength.3 The election, which was due to be held in November 2019, was preponed due to crisis in the coalition government in November 2018. The escalation with Hamas between 11 and 13 November 2018 led to the death of 15 Palestinians and two Israelis.4 Netanyahu government eventually entered into Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreement with Hamas on 13 November 2018 that led to the resignation of then Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu reducing the ruling coalition’s seat share from 67 to 61. 5

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been charged in multiple cases of corruption, he sought for an early election in April to gain referendum for his government. The Prime Minister has been accused of accepting gifts worth US$ 200,000 from Hollywood director Arnon Milchan to help him secure a US visa and push for a law which would provide tax breaks to Milchan in case he decides to move back to Israel. Moreover, he has been accused of advancing legislation to ban free daily newspapers targeting Israel Hayom to buy positive coverage from its rival newspaper, Yediot Acharonot. In the third case, he has been charged for buying positive coverage from news website Walla by relaxing regulations for its parent telecom company, Bezeq. 6 Netanyahu’s close associates have also been accused of receiving illicit funds in state purchase of submarines and naval vessels from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp. The Prime Minister has repeatedly claimed his innocence calling it a left-wing conspiracy.7 Early election has therefore delayed and effectively complicated the legal procedure.8 The election was therefore seen as a litmus test for his credibility and a crucial determinant for his fate.

Members of the ruling coalition such as Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have traditionally relied on the votes of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community or Haredim community and both parties have succeeded to improve their tally from seven and six in 2015 to eight each in 2019.9,10 The ultra-orthodox community has been protesting against the bill passed by Knesset on 3 July 2018 that would punish institutions that refuses to send yeshiva students to join the army.11 The subject of compulsory military conscription among the ultra-orthodox community was highly contentious during the campaign season which widened the division between the religious and secular factions. In fact, the failure by Netanyahu to form a new government is rooted in his incapability to reach a compromise between the religious and secular factions. Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular nationalist far-right party led by Avigdor Lieberman, has been strongly in favour of applying compulsory military conscription among the ultra-orthodox community.

Debate over application of mandatory conscription has been continuing since the election results were declared on 9 April 2019. Talks between the ultra-orthodox parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu after more than one and half months failed and Netanyahu could not muster the support of the prerequisite 61 members to form the government. He also tried to rope in the support from the opposition parties, however, his bid failed.12 This is also the first time in Israel’s political history that two national elections would be held in one year.

Lieberman, after the dissolution of Knesset on 29 May 2019, blamed Likud and the ultra-orthodox parties for the failure to form a government and expressed that he was unwilling to compromise on turning Israel into a religious state and claimed that Likud has completely surrendered to the ultra-orthodox parties.13 Netanyahu, on the other hand, claimed Lieberman as part of the ‘Left’ because he has betrayed the right-wing voters who voted for him.14

Leader of the main opposition party, Benny Gantz, alleged that Netanyahu’s insistence to dissolve the Knesset was part of a political conspiracy in order to deflect indictment charges which are likely to begin on 2 October 2019. According to Israeli law, a sitting Prime Minister enjoys immunity from legal proceedings.15 Gantz, therefore, claimed that the dissolution of the Knesset and re-election would provide a ‘legal fortress’.16 At the same time, there is a provision in the law that allows the President to invite other parties to form the government. Netanyahu, however, pre-empted the move and succeeded in getting the support of 74 Members of Knesset (MKs) to dissolve the Parliament.17

In conclusion, the April election reflected the contemporary political temperament of a major section of the Israeli people which has tended to shift towards the right over the years and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party has done well despite the charges of corruption and largely critical media environment. At the same time, the election demonstrated the fault lines in the Israeli society in terms of pragmatism-militarism divide and religious-secular divide. Netanyahu’s political allies such as Shas and UTJ which are supported by the ultra-orthodox community have maintained their position to annul the implementation of compulsory conscription law on the Haredi community. Yisrael Beiteinu, on the other hand, continues to insist on the implementation of the conscription law which eventually led to the failure to form government and dissolution of the Knesset. Several political commentators have raised questions over the potential of leadership change within Likud. However, Likud has historically been a single leader based party and Netanyahu continues to enjoy a firm grip over Likud and state institutions. The political situation within Israel, however, is likely to remain fractured in the coming days and the scope of reaching a political solution is highly fragile.

References:
  1. Middle East Monitor. “Final Israel election result: Netanyahu wins by 1 seat, Bennett and Shaked out.” Middle East Monitor. April 11, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190411-final-israel-election-result-netanyahu-wins-by-1-seat-bennett-and-shaked-out/
  2. Middle East Monitor. “Final Israel election result: Netanyahu wins by 1 seat, Bennett and Shaked out.” Middle East Monitor. April 11, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190411-final-israel-election-result-netanyahu-wins-by-1-seat-bennett-and-shaked-out/
  3. Knesset. “Elections for the Knesset.” Knesset. April 24, 2019. Accessed April 24, 2019. https://main.knesset.gov.il/en/mk/pages/elections.aspx
  4. Holmes, O. and Balousha, H. (2018). “Israel and Hamas agree to Gaza ceasefire after intense violence.” The Guardian. November 13, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/13/relentless-reprisal-attacks-as-israel-and-hamas-ignore-ceasefire-pleas-gaza
  5. Levinson, C. “Israel's Defense Chief Resigns, Slams Netanyahu for 'Surrendering to Hamas Terror'.” Haaretz. November 14, 2018. Accessed April 23, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-s-political-arena-holds-breath-as-defense-chief-calls-surprise-presser-1.6653822
  6. Sales, B. “Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, explained.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. March 1, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.jta.org/2019/03/01/israel/benjamin-netanyahus-corruption-scandals-explained
  7. Bachner, M. “Netanyahu and the submarine scandal: Everything you need to know.” The Times of Israel. March 21, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-and-the-submarine-scandal-everything-you-need-to-know/
  8. Benn, A. “What's the Rush? Six Reasons for Netanyahu's Snap Election Campaign.” Haaretz. December 25, 2018. Accessed 25 April 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-what-s-the-rush-six-reasons-for-netanyahu-s-snap-election-campaign-1.6781744
  9. BBC News. “Israel election: Netanyahu's Likud storms to victory.” BBC News. March 18, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31933326
  10. Weiss, Y. “Nearly Final Results: Right-Wing Bloc Has 65 Seats; Shas and UTJ – 8 Seats Each.” Hamodia. April 10, 2019. Accessed April 28, 2019. https://hamodia.com/2019/04/10/nearly-final-results-right-wing-bloc-65-seats-shas-utj-8-seats/
  11. Lis, J. “Controversial Bill to Draft ultra-Orthodox Into Israeli Army Passes First Knesset Vote.” Haaretz. July 3, 2018. Accessed April 24, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-passes-controversial-bill-to-draft-orthodox-men-in-first-vote-1.6240660
  12. Haaretz. “After Netanyahu fails to form government, Israel to hold new election.” Haaretz. May 30, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/after-netanyahu-fails-to-form-government-israel-to-hold-new-election-1.7306156
  13. Yoffie, E.H. “Israel's False Messiah of Religious Freedom Just Brought Down Netanyahu. It's Hilarious.” Haaretz. May 30, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-s-phony-messiah-of-religious-freedom-just-brought-down-netanyahu-1.7306414
  14. Beeri, T. “Netanyahu: Lieberman is now part of the Left.” The Jerusalem Post. May 30, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.jpost.com/Israel-Elections/Netanyahu-Liberman-is-now-part-of-the-left-591074
  15. Chachko, E. “Indicting a Sitting Prime Minister: The Israeli Constitutional Framework.” Lawfare. March 2, 2018. Accessed April 26, 2019. https://www.lawfareblog.com/indicting-sitting-prime-minister-israeli-constitutional-framework
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