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Why Is Israel Heading for an Election?

It’s not because of the economy or the “Jewish State” bill—it’s because Netanyahu’s coalition members just can’t get along

Lahav Harkov
December 02, 2014
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid on March 18, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid on March 18, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Israel is headed for an election, less than two years after the last one. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on Tuesday and said he will disperse the Knesset as soon as possible. The decision makes this the second-shortest Knesset term in Israeli history.

Netanyahu and Lapid met on Monday night after not speaking for about a month. The meeting was an apparent last-ditch attempt to save the coalition between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and the more centrist Yesh Atid.

At the meeting Netanyahu presented Lapid with conditions of continued cooperation. He demanded that Lapid increase the defense budget, drop his flagship affordable housing proposal, and stop criticizing construction plans in East Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s approach to relations with the U.S. Netanyahu also made clear that Lapid would have to stem his objections to the “Jewish State” legislation under consideration.

Netanyahu’s requests would be required Lapid to reverse his previously stated positions, making an agreement highly unlikely.

An early election isn’t being called in response to the economy, as Yesh Atid claimed after the meeting. Nor is the election about the wave of terrorism that has gripped Jerusalem, though some see the government’s response as weak. Finally, it’s not in response to the collapse of talks with the Palestinians, or to right-wing extremism, as Livni said, or any of the issues the prime minister listed in his ultimatum.

Netanyahu gave an accurate assessment of the coalition’s breakdown after his meeting with Lapid, though it was far from flattering to his leadership skills as prime minister.

“I can’t run the country in the way Israeli citizens expect from us with this government,” the prime minister said. “If some of the ministers’ unprecedented behavior continues, there will be no escaping asking the public for its trust again.”

In other words, the coalition has been dysfunctional for months, and Netanyahu has been unable to corral his ministers. Calling an election makes more sense to him at this point than trying to crack the whip.

In response to Netanyahu’s demands, Yesh Atid officials accused Netanyahu of prioritizing narrow political interests over agreement on Lapid’s 2015 budget, which the party says will improve Israelis’ socioeconomic standing. A significant aspect of Lapid’s proposal is his plan to levy zero-value-added tax for first-time homeowners, which the Finance Minister claims will solve the housing crisis, though most leading Israeli economists disagree.

Yesh Atid hopes to spotlight the economy as the reason for the election. In doing so, the party seeks to paint Lapid as a defender of the middle class, just as he did in his previous, inaugural Knesset campaign, when Yesh Atid won 19 seats.

Yesh Atid also criticized Netanyahu’s appeals to Shas and United Torah Judaism, two ultra-Orthodox parties, claiming that the prime minister had struck a deal with them. The parties deny that there’s an agreement and echo calls for an election as soon as possible: UTJ’s Moshe Gafni says Netanyahu and Lapid should have to “eat the stew they made for themselves.” Likud sources added that Netanyahu has their support for a post-election coalition without Lapid.

This coalition was probably doomed from the start. In 2013, Lapid and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett made a tactical alliance that one party would not join the coalition without the other. Because Lapid refused to join the haredim, that decision gave the prime minister no way to include them—his “natural partners”—in a coalition. As a result, Netanyahu took in the political newcomers, along with Livni’s Hatnua party, which won six seats. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu ran on a joint list with Likud, a partnership which Lieberman subsequently broke up this year.

Likud MK Yariv Levin, until recently coalition whip, is fond of saying that not a day has gone by without a party threatening to break up the government. Levin scheduled major votes on the same day so that the parties held each other by the throat; their policies would pass in tandem, with mutual support, or not at all.

The coalition slowly chugged along until the start of Operation Protective Edge this past July. As soon as the violence ended, the war within the coalition began. Suddenly everything was stalled, from the 2015 budget to the “Jewish State” bill.

It is now likely that the Knesset will officially be dismissed a week from Wednesday. The only thing that could salvage the current coalition would be an eleventh-hour maneuver, such as the haredim replacing Lapid in the coalition without an election. Netanyahu pulled off such a deal in May 2012, when the Knesset was voting on whether to disperse itself. Then, after 2 a.m. Netanyahu brought the centrist party, Kadima, into his government, forming a mega-coalition of 94 seats and holding off an election. Barring a repeat of that scenario, an election will be held at least 90 days after the Knesset’s dispersal; sources in Likud are pointing to mid- to late March 2015 as a likely time.

At this point the outcome of such an election is difficult to predict, as Israeli polls are known to be unreliable. Currently the polls seem to suggest that Netanyahu will win a fourth term, allowing him to form a right-wing and haredi coalition. But it remains to be seen how much will change between now and March.

Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.