JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed Monday to hold early elections in April after the ruling coalition appeared to come up short on votes needed to pass a contentious piece of court-ordered legislation.
Netanyahu said his coalition “unanimously” agreed to disband the government and hold a new election. At a meeting of his Likud faction, he listed his accomplishments in office and said he hoped his current religious, nationalistic coalition would be the “core” of the next one as well.
“We will ask the voters for a clear mandate to continue leading the state of Israel our way,” he said to applause from party members.
The Knesset, or parliament, is expected to hold a vote on Wednesday to formally dissolve, setting the stage for a three-month election campaign and a likely vote on April 9.
The latest polls appear to predict another solid victory for Netanyahu, though an indictment over mounting corruption charges could still trip him up.
Netanyahu’s coalition has been roiled by internal divisions for months. Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense minister last month to protest what he perceived to be the government’s weak response to rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza.
But a new law extending the military draft to ultra-Orthodox men appears to have triggered the government’s downfall. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners are demanding the legislation be weakened and his razor-thin parliamentary majority seems to be making such a compromise impossible.
Ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will lead to immersion in secularism. But years of exemptions have generated widespread resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis. Earlier Monday, Yair Lapid of the opposition Yesh Atid party announced he was rescinding his support for the bill, calling the coalition’s hoped-for compromise a payoff to draft dodgers.
As a result, Netanyahu convened his fellow coalition faction leaders and the decision was made to dissolve parliament and go to elections.
Another victory for Netanyahu would assure his place in history as Israel’s longest-serving leader and allow him to solidify his close alliance with President Donald Trump. Another term would also allow Netanyahu to push forward with his nationalistic agenda and worldwide campaign to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
With the opposition parties currently splintered, the only thing that seems to stand in his way is potential criminal charges over his bevy of corruption allegations. Police have recommended he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in three different cases. The country has long been eagerly awaiting the attorney general’s decision on whether to press charges, as opposition figures have called on Netanyahu to resign because of his legal woes.
The justice ministry announced Monday that deliberations were continuing and were “not dependent on political events.”
Netanyahu has angrily dismissed the accusations against him, characterizing them as part of a media-driven witch-hunt that is obsessed with removing him from office. He has vowed to carry on and keep serving.
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said he doesn’t expect the attorney general to make a final decision in the coming months and Netanyahu’s move seems to be trying to “pre-empt” a potential indictment by getting re-elected first.
“He wants to win. He wants to turn around to the attorney general and say ‘before you decide to prosecute me pay attention. The people of Israel have re-elected me for a fourth time,'” Hazan explained, adding that if Netanyahu is re-elected, it would send a message to the attorney general that “you cannot overturn the results of a democratic election.”
However, Netanyahu may still run into trouble if he plans to count on the support of his current senior collation partner again. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the economy-centric Kulanu party, reiterated his stance that “a prime minister under indictment after a hearing cannot serve.”
Though the polls currently don’t bode well for most of the center and left-wing opposition parties, there was widespread excitement among them at the prospect of a new election. The Zionist Union, the largest opposition bloc, said it welcomed the move.
“The hourglass toward the end of the Netanyahu’s rule has begun its path,” it said in a statement.
Elections were previously scheduled for November 2019. But since Lieberman’s resignation the coalition has been relying on the slimmest of parliamentary majorities, just 61 out of its 120 members, and has found governing difficult.
The last time a government served its full term was in 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or as a strategic move by the prime minister to maximize his chance of re-election.
Just six week ago, Netanyahu said the time was not right for early elections because of the country’s tricky security situation. But following the military campaign to uncover the Hezbollah tunnel network from Lebanon into Israel, he said the country was now in a different place.
“We have neutralized it and the operation is mostly over,” he said. “It was right not to go to elections then and I think it is perfectly sensible to go elections now.”