The Knesset approves its dissolution and leads Israel to its fifth election in less than four years

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid takes over as acting head of government until the elections on 1 November

PHOTO/KNESSET  -   The bill for the dissolution of the 24th Knesset is approved in the final readings

Israel reached an impasse just over a year ago when eight parties formed an unprecedented coalition government to oust Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu, the country's most influential politician embroiled in numerous corruption cases. Now, the pressing political crisis has resurfaced to lead the Hebrew nation to its fifth election in less than four years. Since 1996, Israel has held elections every two and a half years.

The Knesset, Israel's parliament, on Thursday held the third and final session required to approve its dissolution and the immediate calling of new elections. The opposition, led by Netanyahu, explored until the last minute formulas to circumvent the elections and form an alternative government led by the Minister of Defence, Benny Gantz, but the former general of the Israeli Defence Forces rejected the proposal because of his lack of confidence in 'Bibi'.

By virtue of article 34 of the Basic Laws, and with 92 votes in favour and zero against, the Hebrew legislature definitively overthrew the government tandem formed by the hitherto prime minister, Naftali Bennet, and the centrist leader Yair Lapid, strong man of the Executive and architect of a historic agreement that for the first time counted on an Arab Islamist formation, Ra'am, to weave a majority and enter the institutions.

The decision to dissolve the House had been taken since last week, when Bennett and Lapid made the proposal official, but the legislative procedure was postponed due to negotiations between the government and the opposition over the approval of pending laws and the definitive setting of the date for the elections. There was no unanimity and the chosen date, put to a vote, was 1 November.

Benjamin Netanyahu
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The outgoing government will remain in office until the composition of a new cabinet with the election results in hand. It will henceforth be able to appoint new ministers without the approval of the Knesset, but will be limited in its ability to push through proposals. The only certainty is that he will no longer have Bennett at the helm, who will become deputy prime minister. The Yamina leader handed over the leadership of his party to his number two, Ayelet Shaked, and announced that he will not run in the next elections.

The former special operations soldier turned wealthy cybersecurity entrepreneur and later settler leader, who was the first head of government born after the 1967 Six-Day War, is leaving the political arena after a difficult year, leaving behind a failed executive and a splintered party torn apart by infighting after the formation of the government.

Yair Lapid will take over from midnight on Friday, replacing his partner Bennett, to whom he ceded power despite having quadrupled the number of seats in the Knesset under a coalition government agreement that stipulated that, should the government collapse due to divisions on the right, he would be in charge of leading the cabinet. The head of the centrist Yesh Atid (Spanish for "There is a future") will combine the posts of prime minister and foreign minister until November.

"Thank you, Naftali, my brother," Lapid tweeted after the vote. Once the dissolution of the House was approved, the two exchanged seats so that it was Lapid who took the seat reserved for the prime minister, a gesture for posterity that reflects the good harmony that the two have maintained over the last few months. The rest of the government, meanwhile, will retain their posts and the MPs will concentrate on the election campaign.

The historic coalition signed in June 2021 by up to eight political formations of different political persuasions is now a thing of the past. In an unthinkable balancing act, Lapid managed to win the support of the Zionist right, the liberals, Labour and leftists and, to top it all, the Islamist Arabs led by the Palestinian-born politician Mansour Abbas, whose platform sought better services and more public spending for Israel's Arab minority, which represents around 20 per cent of the population.

Abbas acknowledged from the Knesset rostrum that "it is possible to work together". "We did not feel that there was such a big [gap] between all the parties," insisted the Islamist, who was in favour of repeating the feat: "I would give this coalition another mandate in the future to continue".

The backbone of the executive was the divisive figure of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, who is on trial for taking bribes, fraud and breach of trust. The anti-Bibi coalition, which succeeded in bringing him back into opposition, resisted his onslaught in recent months, but was dealt the final blow in early June when it failed to win the majority needed to extend the emergency law that preserves the special legal status of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Yair Lapid, Israel's 14th prime minister

The popular writer, columnist and host of the country's most watched late-night talk show, who made the leap into politics in 2012 with the creation of the centrist Yesh Atid to counter the influence of the ultra-Orthodox movement in national politics, became a revelation a year later after winning the best election results behind Netanyahu's Likud. That second place secured him a key position in the short-lived coalition executive under 'Bibi's' leadership, from which he went on to hold the economy portfolio.

Yair Lapid
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   Israeli interim prime minister and foreign minister Yair Lapid at an election rally for his Yesh Atid platform

Since then, Lapid and Netanyahu have faced each other seven times, with a favourable balance for the conservative leader. In the first round of 2019, the interim prime minister made a pact with centrist military officer Benny Gantz to form the Blue and White party, and ceded the leadership to Gantz. But when the latter broke his electoral commitment and joined the coalition with Netanyahu in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Lapid distanced himself by warning his partner of 'Bibi's' lack of credibility in a strategy that proved successful after the coalition broke up seven months later.

In this new ballot, the polls point to a new victory for Netanyahu, whose Likud party would be the most voted and would lead the already consolidated bloc in the Knesset made up of the ultra-Orthodox, religious and extreme right-wing pro-settler parties, among which Bennett used to be found. Together they would account for between 58 and 60 MPs, according to early polls. The majority stands at 61, which is why Netanyahu has tried to seduce the Islamist Ra'am to secure power, despite the rejection of his usual partners.

The son of Yosef 'Tommy' Lapid, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who became a minister at the beginning of the decade, the 58-year-old centrist will try to stay at the head of the government using his statesmanlike profile. The main promoter of the two-state solution and spearhead of the political "crusade" against the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox, Lapid has been able to mark his differences with 'Bibi' on matters of principle and the defence of democratic precepts.

The interim prime minister will occupy number 9 Smolenski Street and will have three months to relaunch his candidacy in his umpteenth bid against Netanyahu, a tough rival who has been in office for more than 15 years. In the meantime, Lapid will host US President Joe Biden on his upcoming tour of the Middle East. The countdown begins.