Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday fired the heads of the two center-left parties in his coalition, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni. He’s expected to address the media at 10:10 p.m. Israel time (3:10 Eastern) to discuss the political situation.
The dramatic event came less than a day after Netanyahu and Lapid had met Monday evening, ostensibly to patch up their differences. Sources in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said Netanyahu had presented Lapid with a list of demands that were designed cause the talks to fail, allowing the prime minister to go to the public and point his finger at Lapid. Among them were support of the controversial Jewish Nation-State bill.
It now appears inevitable that Israel is heading to early general elections next spring. The current Knesset was elected in January 2013 for a statutory four-and-a-half year term that would end in June 2017.
Efforts have been underway from both right and left to woo the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism into a government within the current Knesset, avoiding elections. Shas leader Arye Deri told a press conference today that he had been approached yesterday — he wouldn’t name names — to form “an alternative government without Netanyahu.” He said despite the economic burden of a new election, it was the only way out and he had rejected the proposal. He said Shas’s “iron-clad” conditions for joining any government were raising the minimum wage to 30 shekels an hour and ending the value added tax on basic commodities (such as milk and bread).
An alternative government with a more moderate policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could theoretically be formed within the current Knesset, with 65 of the house’s 120 seats, by including Lapid and Livni, Labor, Meretz, Kadima and the two Haredi parties. However, it would require a great deal of swallowing hard by Lapid and the Haredim, given the bad blood between them.
Ironically, current polls show that in new elections, Lapid and Shas would each lose nearly half their seats.
Netanyahu had reportedly presented Lapid with five conditions to continue the current coalition. According to Haaretz, they included: First, that Lapid back away from his signature housing bill, which would eliminate the value-added tax for first-time homebuyers. Second, that Yesh Atid support the so-called Jewish nation-state bill. Third, Lapid and his allies had to cease their attacks on government policies, including construction in East Jerusalem and deteriorating relations with the United States.
The fourth and fifth conditions involved releasing funds for the military that Lapid had been holding up. One is a 6 billion shekel ($1.53 billion) addition to the defense budget requested by the IDF. The other is a release of funds budgeted to move military installations to the Negev from their current locations on valuable real estate in the center of the country.
Netanyahu had told a meeting of his Likud Knesset faction that morning that the government couldn’t continue to function while ministers continually undermined it and attacked it from within.
Yesh Atid sources told Ynet that the meeting and subsequent statement were all a “show” put on by the prime minister in order to justify early elections that would benefit his own political standing while paralyzing the economy for months and costing the nation billions.
The latest opinion poll, published Sunday by Haaretz, showed that if elections were held today for a new Knesset, Likud would rise from 18 seats to 24 in the 120-member body, while Yesh Atid would drop from 19 seats to 11.
The party to the right of Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, would rise from 12 to 16. Labor would drop from 15 to 13, Livni’s Hatnuah from 6 to 4 and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu from 13 to 11 and Shas from 11 to 6.
The biggest winner would be a new movement announced recently by Moshe Kachlon, a popular former Likud welfare minister who announced his retirement from politics last year. He’s known for his populist economic views, based largely on privatization and competition, but has no clear position on Israeli-Paleitnian relations.
In all, according to the pollsters, the Dialog group, parties on the right would rise from 61 seats in the current Knesset to 77 seats, while the center, left and Arab-backed parties would drop from 59 to 43. That calculation counts the two Haredi parties, Shas and Torah Judaism, as part of the right, even though they were members of the last two Labor led coalitions under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
In response to the question of who was “most fit” to be Israel’s next prime minister, 35% named Netanyahu and 17% named Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog, while Lieberman, Lapid and Bennett received 8%, 7% and 6% respectively.
Two parties, Kadima (currently with 2 seats) and the Arab-nationalist Balad (with 3) would fail to reenter the new Knesset.
Other recent polls have shown roughly similar results.
Relations between Netanyahu and Lapid have been tense for weeks because of their deadlock over the budget. They took a nosedive about a month ago, however, as rumors began spreading in the Knesset that Lapid and Livni were talking to Herzog about bringing down Netanyahu and forming an alternative, left-leaning coalition within the current Knesset. That coalition would include Lapid’s 19 seats, Labor’s 15, 6 each from Livni and Meretz plus 2 from Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima for a total of 48. In large part those talks were stymied by the failure of the three main figures, Lapid, Livni and Herzog, to agree on who would lead.
Shas leader Arye Deri said on Tuesday that he had Accordingly, talks had reportedly been going on to find the extra support to form a majority with either Shas or Yisrael Beiteinu. Those efforts appear to have collapsed with recent announcements by Lieberman and Shas’s Arye Deri that they would not sign onto to an alternative government. That cleared the way for Netanyahu to force a showdown with Lapid, knowing that new elections would decimate Lapid and his natural allies.
Leaders of the two Haredi parties announced this week that while they won’t join an alternative government of the center-left, they aren’t committed to supporting Netanyahu for prime minister after new elections.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).