Israel’s parliament is expected to dissolve Wednesday, ending Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s year-long tenure and triggering a fifth election in less than four years that could see ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu reclaim power.
Barring an 11th hour shock agreement to save the coalition or form a new government within the existing parliament, Bennett’s eight-party alliance is due to end by midnight, installing Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as prime minister.
The former television anchor is set to head a caretaker government, ahead of polls due in late October or early November.
Bennett’s motley alliance formed in 2021 offered a reprieve from an unprecedented era of political gridlock, ending Netanyahu’s record 12 consecutive years in power and passing Israel’s first state budget since 2018.
Netanyahu — a divisive hawk aligned with far-right nationalists and Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties — has promised victory in new elections but may again struggle to rally a parliamentary majority, multiple polls have shown.
He is currently on trial over corruption charges, which he denies.
The anti-Netanyahu camp will likely be led by Lapid, a centrist former TV celebrity. Dismissed as a lightweight when he entered politics a decade ago, he has surprised many with his political skills.
As he and Bennett announced last week that their coalition was no longer tenable, Lapid sought to cast Netanyahu’s potential return to office as a national threat.
“What we need to do today is go back to the concept of Israeli unity. Not to let dark forces tear us apart from within,” Lapid said.
While parliament’s collapse appeared a near certainty, last-minute surprises remained possible given Israel’s volatile political climate.
Factions across the political spectrum fear fresh polls will see them lose seats or end up out of parliament entirely by falling below the minimum support threshold, which is 3.25 percent of all votes cast.
But options to avoid another election were growing increasingly remote, according to Israeli reports.
That means Lapid is expected to take office at midnight after parliament gives final approval to a dissolution bill, in accordance with the power-sharing deal he agreed with Bennett last June.
– ‘Fought like lions’ –
Bennett, a religious nationalist, has led a coalition of right-wingers, centrists, doves and Islamists from the Raam faction, which made history by becoming the first Arab party to support an Israeli government in the Jewish state’s 74-year history.
The alliance, united by its desire to oust Netanyahu and break a damaging cycle of inconclusive elections, was imperilled from the outset by its ideological divides.
But Bennett said the final straw was a failure to renew a measure that ensures the roughly 475,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank live under Israeli law.
Some Arab lawmakers in the coalition refused to back a bill they said marked a de facto endorsement of a 55-year occupation that has forced West Bank Palestinians to live under Israeli rule.
For Bennett, a staunch supporter of settlements, allowing the so-called West Bank law to expire was intolerable. Dissolving parliament before its June 30 expiration temporarily renews the measure.
“We fought like lions, down to the very last moment, until it simply became impossible,” Bennett told Israel’s Channel 12 days after announcing his coalition’s demise.
Bennett is expected to stay on as alternate prime minister and be responsible for Iran policy, as world powers take steps to revive stalled talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Israel opposes a restoration of the 2015 agreement that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for checks on its nuclear programme.
Lapid will retain his foreign minister title while serving as Israel’s 14th premier. He will find himself under an early microscope, with US President Joe Biden due in Jerusalem in two weeks.