Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plunged the country into repeat elections instead of allowing his rival, retired military chief Benny Gantz, a chance to form the next government.
Mr Netanyahu took the unprecedented step to dissolve parliament after failing to lure his erstwhile ally, Avigdor Lieberman, to add the five seats won by the Israel Our Home party, which represents mostly Russian-speaking secular Jews, to the 60 seats won by the rightwing bloc in April polls. Mr Netanyahu needed 61 seats to form a government.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and other allies voted to dissolve parliament minutes after a deadline that would have given president Reuven Rivlin legal authority to ask Mr Gantz, whose nascent Blue and White Party equalled Likud’s 35-seat haul, to cobble together a coalition after Mr Netanyahu’s attempts faltered.
A visibly angry Mr Netanyahu blamed the fresh elections on Mr Lieberman’s “demands, demands and more demands” and vowed to win the next polls more decisively. “A few weeks ago the Israeli public clearly, unanimously decided,” Mr Netanyahu told reporters after the vote. “It determined that I will be the prime minister, that the Likud will lead the government, a rightwing government. The public chose me to lead the state of Israel. We will run a sharp, clear election campaign which will bring us victory. We will win, we will win and the public will win,” he said.
Mr Gantz, who joined with two other retired military chiefs and a centrist political party to lead the Blue and White alliance in the April polls, blamed Mr Netanyahu for the elections, saying the prime minister was trying to avoid prosecution.
“Bibi has proven again that it is Bibi over everything, not Israel before all,” he tweeted, using Mr Netanyahu’s childhood nickname. “Bibi is a prisoner of a legal fortress, trying to avoid prison.”
Mr Rivlin had vowed earlier today to stop repeat elections, the first time Israel will hold two national elections in a single year, but Mr Netanyahu’s parliamentary ploy denied him the opportunity to exercise his authority.
The 42-day marathon coalition negotiations hinged on a demand by Mr Lieberman that any government pass a bill increasing conscription of the ultra-orthodox minorities into the military. Israel’s Supreme Court has demanded that any future Israeli government replace an earlier law that had allowed exemptions for the ultra-orthodox, based on a letter written to the community’s rabbis in 1948, the year of Israel’s birth.
Mr Lieberman’s demands were a red line for Mr Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox allies, who together control 16 seats, and have spent decades in alternating coalitions fighting off similar demands to send their young men to enlist instead of studying the Torah under government subsidies.
Mr Lieberman has clashed with the ultra-orthodox for his entire political career, including against their demands for stricter adherence to the sabbath across the country.
“I am not against the ultra-orthodox community. I am for the state of Israel. I am for a Jewish state but against a Halachic state,” Mr Lieberman said on Facebook earlier in the day, using a phrase to describe a country governed within strict Jewish laws.
The fresh elections throw into disarray a swathe of political issues — the White House intended to unveil a peace plan after Mr Netanyahu took office, while ceasefire negotiations with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, continue without resolution.
Separately, Mr Netanyahu will also struggle to pass immunity for himself and other members of parliament in time to avoid prosecution for corruption charges expected to be announced by the attorney-general around December. Fresh elections won’t be held till mid-September. Mr Netanyahu says he is innocent of the allegations of corruption, breach of trust and fraud, and will present an initial defence in October.
Mr Lieberman’s stance is popular outside his base, including in the traditional leftwing opposition, which has wanted the ultra-orthodox community, now accounting for nearly 10 per cent of the population, to integrate into modern society, to integrate into modern Israeli. That includes the mandatory military service responsibility most Israeli Jews spend 2-3 years fulfilling.
The Haredi live in self-imposed segregation, usually in poor urban neighbourhoods, and reject many aspects of modern life, including smartphones and the unregulated mingling of the sexes. About half the male population is unemployed, but receives government subsidies to study the Torah.
Additional reporting by Ilan Ben Zion