The coalition faction leaders met in Knesset today, Monday, 16 Teves, and it was decided to dissolve the Knesset and announce early elections rather than trying to push through the new IDF draft bill. This is due to the growing controversy surrounding the legislation. Hence, the current coalition government will not be completing its term, which expires in November 2019.
The decision was unanimous, with faction leaders calling to dissolve the Knesset immediately, seeking to hold elections on April 9 2019.
To date, the controversy surrounding the draft bill focused on the chareidim, but on Monday morning, both the Yisrael Beitenu and Yesh Atid opposition parties announced they will not back the current version of the draft bill, for they suspect back room deals were made with the chareidi parties regarding fining yeshivos for failing to meet draft quotas and other punitive measures. This seems to have been the straw that broke the coalition’s back, leading coalition leaders to the decision to call for early elections.
Shas and Degel Hatorah have worked to push the current draft law through, amid an awareness a new government is less likely to be as ‘chareidi friendly’ as the current administration. However, those efforts were thwarted by Agudas Yisrael, which continue threatening to topple the government if the draft bill move forward.
It now remains to be seen how the nation’s High Court of Justice will respond, as it set the most recent deadline for legislating a new draft law on January 15, 2019. The court may opt to extend the current situation until after Knesset elections, or it may opt to adjudicate the matter on its own, creating a new reality for Yeshiva Bochrim and Avreichim regarding military service, one that has the chareidi leaders more than a bit concerned.
Appearing loose and confident at a meeting of his Likud faction, Netanyahu listed his government’s accomplishments in office and said he hoped his current religious, nationalistic coalition would be the “core” of Israel’s next government as well.
“We will ask the voters for a clear mandate to continue leading the state of Israel our way,” he said to applause from party members.
Riding high in the polls, Netanyahu appears all but certain to win a fourth consecutive term and a place in history as the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Those bright prospects, however, could be derailed by a looming decision by the country’s attorney general on whether to file charges against Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s coalition has been roiled by internal divisions for months. Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense minister last month to protest what he perceived to be the government’s weak response to rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza. Since Lieberman’s resignation, the coalition has been relying on the slimmest of parliamentary majorities, just 61 out of its 120 members, and has found governing difficult.
Another term would allow Netanyahu to solidify his close alliance with President Donald Trump, and push forward with his nationalistic agenda and worldwide campaign to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu, who also served a term in the late 1990s, has been prime minister for the past decade.
With the opposition parties currently splintered, the only thing that seems to stand in his way is potential criminal charges over his bevy of corruption allegations. Police have recommended he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in three different cases. The country has long been eagerly awaiting the attorney general’s decision on whether to press charges.
The justice ministry announced Wednesday that deliberations were continuing and were “not dependent on political events.”
Netanyahu has angrily dismissed the accusations against him, characterizing them as part of a media-driven witch-hunt that is obsessed with removing him from office.
The last time a government served its full term was in 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or as a strategic move by the prime minister to maximize his chance of re-election.
Netanyahu’s supporters point to a humming, high-tech economy, his handling of security issues, particularly countering the threat of Iranian influence in the region, and his gains on the diplomatic stage, including a close alliance with President Donald Trump that has paid important dividends.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his withdrawal from the international nuclear deal were both welcomed by Netanyahu. The Israeli leader also has quietly forged ties with Sunni Arab states, further sidelining the Palestinians, who have severed ties with the U.S. because they believe Trump is biased against them.
The White House still has not released a long-awaited peace plan, and Monday’s announcement could further delay its release.
But critics say these gains have come at a deep price to Israel’s democratic ideals. Netanyahu’s hard-line government has promoted a series of laws that critics say are aimed at muzzling liberal critics and sidelining the minority Arab population. They point to wide gaps between rich and poor and high cost of living, and say that by neglecting the Palestinian issue and continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, the country is on the path to becoming an apartheid-like binational state
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the election “the most fateful” since the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
“If we all act properly, on April 10 we will part with Netanyahu,” he said on Hahadashot TV. “The state of Israel will get on a different path instead of this nationalist, racist, dark vision.”
Barak called for the country’s dovish and centrist parties to band together in a unified “bloc” in a bid to topple Likud.
Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said the election was a battle for the “soul of the country.”
For now, there does not appear to be anyone with the popularity or gravitas to topple Netanyahu.
One wild card is Benny Gantz, a popular former military chief who is flirting with the idea of entering politics. Opposition parties have been aggressively courting Gantz. But for now, he has not committed to joining any party.
Instead, the biggest threat appears to be posed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who must soon decide on whether to indict the prime minister.
Earlier this month, police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery for promoting regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the country’s main telecom company Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Bezeq’s controlling shareholder to receive positive press coverage on the company’s popular news site.
Police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favorable press coverage.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a media-fueled witch hunt. At Monday’s Likud meeting, Netanyahu brushed off a reporter’s question and said he expected the investigations to lead nowhere.
Mandelblit has not said when he expects to make a decision. The Justice Ministry announced Monday that deliberations were continuing and were “not dependent on political events.”
Israeli law is unclear about whether a sitting prime minister must resign if charged with a crime, and Netanyahu has hinted that he will remain in office to fight any indictment.
But criminal charges, and the distraction of a protracted legal battle, could fuel calls for him to step aside.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlan, a key ally, said Monday that a prime minister “cannot serve” if he is indicted following a required hearing.
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University, said the campaign would be dominated by “a discussion of whether Netanyahu should stay after, if he is prosecuted.”
He said Netanyahu had settled on the April election, roughly seven months ahead of schedule, in part to “pre-empt” an indictment. The thinking is that it would be politically difficult for Mandelblit to indict, and potentially topple, a popular, newly re-elected prime minister.
“He wants to turn around to the attorney general and say ‘before you decide to prosecute me pay attention. The people of Israel have re-elected me for a fourth time,’” Hazan explained.
An electoral victory would send a message that “you cannot overturn the results of a democratic election,” he said.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem / AP)