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Knesset Pushes Self-Destruct Button, Making New Elections a Near Certainty

Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself, kicking off a process which, if concluded presumably sometime next week, will lead to the fourth general election cycle in less than two years.

By a vote of 61 to 54, lawmakers from the opposition and ruling government coalition joined forces on Wednesday afternoon to pass a bill in a preliminary reading, calling for the immediate dispersal of the Knesset. The draft will now be sent to committee, before being voted on three more times in order to pass into law.

The opposition’s proposal to disband the parliament, which is normally voted down easily by the government’s majority, was passed thanks to the support of lawmakers from the Blue and White party, headed by Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

With no real achievements or ideology, the ‘just not Bibi’ camp is dragging Israel to unnecessary elections. This is a sad moment for the Israeli people

Gantz announced on Tuesday evening that his party, which is a major coalition partner in the Likud-Blue and White unity government, would vote for the bill, after realizing that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had “no intention of fulfilling his promises to the Israeli people.”

“It wasn’t me he lied to; it was to you. It wasn’t me he led astray, it was the Israeli public,” Gantz said during his prime-time press conference. “I entered this government with a heavy heart… I had no illusions about [Netanyahu], I knew his record as a serial promise breaker. But I believed that the Israeli people were more important than any one individual. I believed he would rise to the occasion.”

Gantz’s decision to support the Knesset’s premature dissolution was reached after six months in which the prime minister has refused to pass a budget for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, as the two sides agreed upon in their May coalition agreement.

Passing the budget would mean Netanyahu will not be able to dissolve the Knesset at a later date and a more convenient time, such as after vaccines against the coronavirus arrive and his poll numbers recover. This is because passing a budget would ensure that the rotation pact signed by Gantz and Netanyahu would remain in force, and that Netanyahu would have to step down as prime minister in one year’s time.

In a prime-time broadcast hours after the Knesset vote, Netanyahu said that the country should be focused on the fight against the coronavirus, and not on politics. “The people of Israel want unity, not elections. They want vaccines, not election broadcasts,” he said.  “We need to put politics aside,” he also said.

Netanyahu’s Likud lawmakers attempted to shift the blame to Blue and White, accusing the party of dealing in politics during a national crisis.

“The only thing in common between the opposition parties and Blue and White is their hope to sabotage Netanyahu’s term. With no real achievements or ideology, the ‘just not Bibi’ camp is dragging Israel to unnecessary elections. This is a sad moment for the Israeli people,” Coalition Speaker Miki Zohar told The Media Line, calling the prime minister by his nickname.

The two sides will now have several days to hammer out an unlikely solution and extend the parliament’s life span, though members of both parties believe the chances of that happening are slim.

While Wednesday’s vote results were expected given Gantz’s announcement, the decision made by several Arab lawmakers from the Joint List to abstain from voting was a surprise.

Members of the United Arab List, or Ra’am, which is one of four parties that make up the Joint List, the only political party with a majority of Arab representatives, decided to stay out of the parliament chamber during roll call, in a shocking move seen by many as the first signs of the Joint List’s disintegration.

In recent weeks, the United Arab List’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has held meetings and conversations with Netanyahu and his allies, signaling his willingness to support the prime minister’s battle against the judicial system in return for political gains. Netanyahu currently is standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The court is scheduled to begin hearing witnesses in the case in two months.

“Theoretically, Abbas is right. The Arab population has been in the left wing’s pocket for over 70 years, and that means they’re getting no respect and are being taken for granted,” Prof. Aziz Haidar, a research fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, told The Media Line.

“When you’re in politics that long and you have no alternative to partner with, you’re going be weak. You’re only powerful when you have options,” he said.

But Haidar, who studies the Israeli-Arab community’s middle-class sector and its political potential, believes cozying up specifically to Netanyahu is the wrong move at this time.

“You can’t partner with someone who passed the Jewish nation-state law, which did irreparable and unprecedented harm to the Arab population,” he said, referring to the controversial bill pushed through by Netanyahu in 2018, which some constitutional experts say racially discriminates against Israel’s non-Jewish population.

The Arab population has been in the left wing’s pocket for over 70 years, and that means they’re getting no respect and are being taken for granted

Last week, Abbas appeared on the right-leaning Channel 20, Israel’s equivalent to Fox News where Netanyahu receives only glowing praise, and accused his fellow Arab lawmakers of betraying their voters.

“If they continue in their ways, they lose all legitimacy for their political existence,” he said.

Abbas has said he will not rule out voting for a bill granting Netanyahu retroactive immunity for his crimes, if he believes he can procure funds and laws benefiting the Arab community in return.

“If you don’t want to side with the center-left wing again, fine. Stay out of the fray and don’t support anyone in this round,” Haidar said, adding that Gantz and Blue and White are far from being truly left-leaning in their views. “But don’t back Netanyahu who has hurt our people perhaps more than any other politician in history,” he also said.

The in-house bickering among Arab lawmakers has led to a dip in support for the Joint List, with recent polls showing it receiving only ten seats in the coming elections, as opposed to the 15 it currently holds.

“They are headed for a split, I think it’s definitely going to happen,” Haidar said of the four parties, adding “It’s also a personal battle over who should be the movement’s leader.”

“And you can bet that will lead to a noticeable drop in [Arab] voter turnout,” he said.