Israel moves towards early elections, Lapid ready to become prime minister

Israel’s parliament is expected to dissolve on Wednesday, ending Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s one-year term and sparking a fifth election in less than four years in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could regain power.

Barring a shocking 11-hour deal to save the coalition or form a new government within the existing parliament, Bennett’s eight-party alliance should end by midnight, appointing Foreign Minister Yair Lapid as prime minister.

The former TV presenter is set to head an interim government ahead of elections due in late October or early November.

Bennett’s motley alliance, formed in 2021, offered a reprieve from an unprecedented era of political deadlock, ending Netanyahu’s record 12-year tenure and passing Israel’s first state budget since 2018.

Netanyahu – a divisive hawk with ties to Israel’s far-right nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties – has promised victory in new elections, but opinion polls show he may once again struggle to build a parliamentary majority.

He is currently on trial on corruption charges, which he denies.

The anti-Netanyahu camp is likely to be led by Lapid, a centrist who has surprised many since he was fired as a lightweight when he entered politics a decade ago.

When he and Bennett announced last week that their coalition was no longer viable, Lapid attempted to present Netanyahu’s potential return to power as a national threat.

“Today we need to return to the concept of Israeli unity. Do not let the dark forces tear us apart from the inside,” said Lapid.

While the collapse of parliament seemed almost inevitable, last-minute surprises remained a possibility given Israel’s volatile political climate.

Factions across the political spectrum fear that new polls will see them lose seats or leave Parliament entirely, falling below the minimum support threshold of 3.25 percent of the votes cast.

But, according to Israeli reports, the chances of avoiding a repeat election were disappearing.

That means Lapid is expected to take office at midnight after Parliament finally approves the dissolution bill under a power-sharing deal he struck with Bennett last June.

A parliamentary committee met on Wednesday to finalize the bill, which must pass two more votes in the plenary before it becomes law.

One of the reported robberies was a dispute over an election date.

Media reports say Netanyahu and his allies are fighting for an October election when their supporters take a break from visiting religious learning centers, hoping it will boost turnout in another extremely tight contest.

“Fight like lions”

Bennett, a religious nationalist, led a coalition of right-wingers, centrists, doves and Islamists from the Ra’am faction that made history by becoming the first Arab party to support an Israeli government in the 74-year history of the Jewish state.

The alliance, united by its desire to overthrow Netanyahu and break the vicious cycle of inconclusive elections, was in danger from the very beginning because of its ideological differences.

But Bennett said the last straw was the failure to renew the measure, which ensures that the estimated 475,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank live under Israeli law.

Some Arab lawmakers in the coalition have refused to support the bill, which they say effectively approves a 55-year occupation that has forced West Bank Palestinians to live under Israeli rule.

For Bennett, a staunch supporter of the settlements, the expiration of the so-called West Bank Act was unacceptable. The dissolution of parliament before its expiration on 30 June temporarily extends this measure.

“We fought like lions until the very last moment, until it just became impossible,” Bennett said days after announcing the dissolution of his coalition.

Bennett is expected to remain deputy prime minister in charge of Iran policy as world powers move to restart stalled talks on Tehran’s nuclear program.

Israel opposes the restoration of the 2015 agreement, which provided for the easing of sanctions against Iran in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program.

Lapid will retain his position as Foreign Minister as Israel’s 14th prime minister. He will soon be under the microscope, and US President Joe Biden is due to arrive in Jerusalem in two weeks.