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Another day, another election in Israeli politics

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Naftali Bennett made Israeli history this week when he announced the collapse of his government on Monday, 20 June. Serving barely a year in office, no elected Israeli prime minister has ever served a shorter tenure.

As a result, the Knesset (parliament) is voting for its own disbandment, which it’s likely to wrap up next week.

Bennett’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, will then become caretaker premier for the period leading up to elections planned for late October or early November. Practically speaking, he will be prime minister for at least four to six months until a new government is sworn in.

Bennett formed the short-lived “change” coalition in June last year, cobbling together the most ideological, ethnic, and religiously diverse government in Israel’s history. It brought together secular and religious factions, right-wing and leftist politicians, and an independent Arab party, Ra’am, for the first time ever. Throughout its time, the coalition only ever had a slim majority but was successful in ousting former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, from office. This was the glue that bound the disparate parties together – a shared commitment to “anyone but Bibi”.

Bennett’s government had some early successes, including passing Israel’s first budget in several years, but it lost its majority in April and continued its downward slide from there.

Its unravelling presents an opportunity for Netanyahu to make a dramatic return to power and he, in turn, has expressed confidence that his coalition will win a majority in the next elections.

But the latest polls predict a political deadlock with no party having a clear path to a majority coalition unless the current blocs of coalition and opposition parties shift.

Polls have consistently shown parties loyal to Netanyahu faring better in a vote, but still falling short of a majority. The Arab Joint List, which supports neither side, holds the balance of power. This means Israelis will now be dragged into their fifth election campaign in just three-and-a-half years.

Bennett has dubbed Netanyahu’s “poison [propaganda] machine” that has served him well in the past. But Netanyahu will face weaker rather than frightened rivals that will make it more difficult for his Likud to regain power.

However, should he mobilise the 61-seat Knesset majority that evaded him through the past four election cycles, experts predict he will probably try to carry out a constitutional, legal, and regime coup. His overarching goal is to stop the corruption trial taking place against him, which includes a charge of bribery.

Bennett and Lapid’s announcement to voluntarily dissolve their coalition surprised many Israelis. Bennett made a last-ditch effort to appeal to his renegade Yamina party Knesset member, Nir Orbach, last week not to vote with the Likud-led opposition in favour of bringing down the government. Orbach refused.

Had the vote gone ahead, Orbach’s support could have tipped the scales in the opposition’s favour. Thus, instead of new elections in the fall, Bennett’s coalition government could perhaps have been replaced at once by a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Bennett no doubt doesn’t want to go down in history as a leader blackmailed by a little-known politician who rode into the Knesset on his coattails last year.

The collapse of the government comes as the Biden administration announces the United States president’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Saudi Arabia next month.

Lapid is expected to be serving as Israeli prime minister then. For Biden, Jerusalem is just a stop on a Middle East trip designed to reconcile relations further between the US and Saudi Arabia following the killing in 2018 of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

For Israel, the visit is important for regional stability and the struggle against Iran.

Bennett has repeatedly pointed to recent events on the Iran nuclear front as a major success of his coalition. In February, when it seemed as though an Iran deal between Teheran and the P5 + 1 was around the corner, Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Lapid became more vocal in speaking out against the negotiations to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The dissolution of the Knesset comes at a critical time in Israel’s battle to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – a time at which continuity, or a lack thereof, could have an impact on the outcome. The fact that there is such political turmoil at such a pivotal time for Iran-related diplomacy is a challenge for Jerusalem.

Unlike Netanyahu, who refused to discuss anything to do with Iran talks with his American counterparts, Bennett has engaged with the Biden administration. As a result, Washington has been transparent with Jerusalem on related matters.

In the long run, Bennett supports an Iran deal, but one that lacks the JCPOA’s weaknesses, like gradually lifting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme. In theory, Iran would be enticed to join the deal by the lifting of economic sanctions and deterred from leaving it by the threat of them snapping back.

Such is the nature of Israeli politics at the moment that should Biden return for another visit to the Middle East later this year, he could well be meeting with still another prime minister. Perhaps it would be someone he has met before, such as Netanyahu, or wannabe prime minister and current Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Israeli politics is interesting, if nothing else.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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