Israeli government collapses amid "Jewish state" debacle

Israeli government collapses amid "Jewish state" debacle
Early parliamentary elections in Israel have been called for March, after personality clashes between Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his centre-right coalition.
5 min read
03 December, 2014
Netanyahu's government is set to collapse [AFP]
It was a bizarre scene at the prime minister's office on Tuesday night, where an angry and defensive Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sounded more like an opposition leader, reciting a litany of his own government's failings.

That government will almost certainly collapse within days: The Knesset will hold a preliminary vote to dissolve itself on Wednesday, with a final reading expected next week. A majority of Israel's political factions, including Netanyahu's Likud, plan to support the motion.

But the vote was nothing more than a formality by the time Netanyahu addressed the nation on Tuesday night. He had already fired Finance Minister
     In the current situation, with the current government, it's become impossible to lead.
- Binyamin Netanyahu
 Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and blamed them for the political crisis, calling for elections "as soon as possible".

"In the current situation, with the current government, it's become impossible to lead," he told reporters. "[Lapid and Livni] tried to overthrow me… the government was under constant threats and ultimatums."

He blamed the voters, too, arguing they forced him into an unworkable government by failing to support Likud in sufficient numbers. "One needs a strong ruling party," Netanyahu said.

Four other cabinet members resigned immediately afterwards, calling Netanyahu's comments "cowardly".

Personality clash

Barring an unlikely eleventh-hour deal, Israel is heading for early elections in the spring, less than halfway through the Knesset's four-year term.

The political crisis comes at a fraught time in Israel, amid a wave of violence in Jerusalem and the first economic slowdown in five years. Yet the election has nothing to do with those issues, nor anything of substance. Instead it comes down to personalities - the clash between Netanyahu and more "moderate" members of his coalition.

The immediate catalyst was a controversial bill declaring Israel the "nation-state of the Jewish people". Ministers approved the draft by a 15-6 vote after a stormy four-hour debate, which reportedly included quite a bit of shouting. Lapid and Livni both refused to support the bill "in its current form".

But the bill, which now goes into cold storage, was merely an excuse to break up the coalition. Netanyahu and Lapid have been squabbling for months over the budget, particularly the former's call to raise taxes and shift more money to the army. Lapid has also been pushing a plan to exempt first-time homebuyers from tax, his signature economic initiative, which Netanyahu - and a majority of Israeli economists - think is a bad idea.

High-stake game

The policy debate turned personal for Netanyahu last month when the Knesset voted on the so-called "Israel HaYom bill," which limits the distribution of a free daily newspaper with a staunchly pro-Netanyahu line, financed by US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The prime minister saw the bill as a personal attack -particularly after many members of his governing coalition voted "yes".

Then there was the "putsch" as Netanyahu dubbed it on Tuesday night. Lapid and Isaac Herzog, the Labor party chief, allegedly tried to form an alternate coalition of moderate and ultra-Orthodox parties.

So Netanyahu, normally an incremental politician who favours the status quo, took action. He summoned Lapid for a meeting on Monday night, their first in nearly a month, and demanded that he support the "Jewish state" bill and drop his zero-VAT scheme. Lapid refused, and elections became inevitable.

Dancing round the polls

Early polls look good for Israel's second longest-serving prime minister as he seeks a fourth term. A survey broadcast on Channel 2 on Tuesday night gave Likud 22 seats, up from 18 in the current Knesset. Combined with Bennett and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, he would have 56 seats, within striking distance of a 61-seat majority.

     Public opinion in Israel is fickle, and poll numbers tend to change wildly during the campaign.

But there are a few caveats.

Public opinion in Israel is fickle, and poll numbers tend to change wildly during the campaign. Most give between 10 and 12 seats to a new centrist party headed by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon; he has not even started campaigning yet.

The political map could change considerably between now and March. The Likud and Jewish Home parties are both scheduled to hold primaries before the election. A far-right branch of Jewish Home is threatening to leave.

And the three parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel are discussing a joint list, after the Knesset raised its electoral threshold, which could force the smaller parties out of the parliament if they run individually.

In the line of fire

Equally important will be the campaign itself, which commentators are already describing as a "referendum on Netanyahu".

Lapid and Livni will be eager to attack him, as will traditional foes like the Labor party. Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman seems exasperated with Netanyahu; he cancelled his party's unity pact with Likud earlier this year.

The public also blames Netanyahu for the political crisis, and is in no mood for early elections, according to recent polls. His approval rating dropped to 38 percent in a Ha'aretz survey published on Sunday.

Yet for all the variables, one underlying reality will comfort Netanyahu: Israel's centre-left is deeply divided and lacks leadership. Herzog is a bland figure who inspires little enthusiasm. Lapid's brand has been tarnished by an unproductive two-year stint in government, and Kahlon's new party, with its focus on the economy, will siphon off some of his support.

Polls show an unmistakable trend toward a larger bloc of right-wing and religious lawmakers.

Netanyahu is unpopular, surrounded on all sides by enemies, lacking in accomplishments - yet still the most likely candidate for prime minister.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.