Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has effectively called time on his premiership after just a year in the job.
Along with his key coalition ally Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – who now looks set to replace him as leader as early as next week – Bennett has agreed to submit a bill to dissolve parliament, which if passed would trigger a general election later this year.
The announcement followed weeks of mounting political uncertainty in Israel, but still came as a major surprise.
A short statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the move came “after attempts to stabilize the coalition had been exhausted.” A bill would be submitted to parliament at some point next week, the statement added.
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If it is passed, Lapid will become the country’s fourteenth Prime Minister, in line with the original coalition agreement struck last year. It also means Israelis will be going to the polls for the fifth time in under four years.
Among the first items on Lapid’s agenda, assuming he does become leader, will be preparing for the visit of US President Joe Biden next month. A senior administration official said the President’s trip to the Middle East is still expected to go ahead despite the political shakeup in Israel.
“We have a strategic relationship with Israel that goes beyond any one government. The President looks forward to the visit next month,” the White House official said.
The Bennett-Lapid government was sworn into office in June last year bringing an end to the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, which had lasted some twelve and a half years.
Made up of no fewer than eight political parties, the coalition stretched right across the political spectrum, including for the first time an Arab party, led by Mansour Abbas.
United in a desire to prevent Netanyahu – whose corruption trial had already begun in May 2020 – from remaining in power, the disparate coalition partners agreed to put their substantial differences to one side.
In November, it notched up a significant domestic achievement, passing a state budget for the first time in nearly four years.
But recent weeks have seen a number of coalition members either quitting, or threatening to quit, leaving the government without a majority in parliament to pass legislation.
The political impasse came to a head earlier this month, when a Knesset vote failed to uphold the application of Israeli criminal and civil law to Israelis in the occupied West Bank.
Among other things, the regulation, which comes up for renewal every five years, gives Israeli settlers the same rights as citizens in Israel, and is an article of faith for right-wing members of the coalition, including Prime Minister Bennett.
But two members of the coalition failed to support the bill, meaning it failed to pass. If parliament dissolves before July 1st, the regulation will remain in place until a new government is formed.
Speaking alongside Lapid on Monday evening, Bennett said their government had swept away what he called the bitterness and paralysis of the Netanyahu era, instead putting decency and trust back center stage.
“In the last few weeks, we did everything we could to save this government. In our eyes, the continuation of its existence was in the national interest. Believe me, we looked under every rock. We didn’t do this for ourselves, but for our beautiful country, for you, the citizens of Israel.”
For his part, Lapid paid tribute to Bennett as a brave and innovative leader. And he appeared to offer a stark warning of the dangers posed by a return to the leadership of Netanyahu.
“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,” he said.
Netanyahu, by contrast, was upbeat, saying the country was smiling after what he called an evening of great news.
“After a determined struggle by the opposition in the Knesset, and great suffering by the public in Israel, it is clear to everyone that the most dismal government in the history of the country has ended.”
Netanyahu and his supporters have been buoyed by the most recent opinion polls, which show his bloc of right-wing and religious parties performing strongly, though still not strongly enough to secure a majority in parliament.