Israel’s parliament voted early Thursday to hold new elections only months after April polls in an unprecedented move provoked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to remain in power despite failing to form a coalition.
Parliament voted 74-45 in favour of dissolving itself and setting elections for September 17.
It came as the deadline for Netanyahu to form a coalition expired and followed raucous moments in parliament that saw opposition members chant “Shame!”
The vote was prompted by Netanyahu’s failure to reach a coalition deal even though his Likud party, along with its right-wing and religious allies, won a majority of 65 of 120 seats in the April 9 elections.
In a matter of weeks, Netanyahu has shifted from victory celebrations to tense, behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure his long tenure in power continues, eventually opting for new elections.
The move prevents Netanyahu’s nightmare scenario of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin selecting another person to try to form a government, but also sends the country into what is likely to be another divisive election campaign.
Holding elections so close to together will be unprecedented for Israel and the stakes could not be much higher for the 69-year-old premier.
Netanyahu is facing possible indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the months ahead and is reportedly seeking legislation in the new parliament that would result in him being granted immunity.
He is also on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in July, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion — and he is no doubt aware of the weighty milestone.
His efforts to form a new coalition hit a brick wall due to ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to abandon a key demand, with his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party’s five seats just enough to torment Netanyahu.
Lieberman wants legislation he supports aimed at having ultra-Orthodox Jews perform mandatory military service, like other Jewish Israelis, to be approved without changes.
The issue is highly sensitive in Israel and the legislation is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, who control 16 seats in parliament and are a key part of Netanyahu’s alliance.
Netanyahu sought to place full blame on Lieberman after the parliament vote, alleging he “had no intention to reach agreements and just wanted to bring down the government.”
“We will have a clear and strong election campaign and win,” he said.
Lieberman repeatedly described his refusal to go along as a matter of principle.
He has long championed the issue and speaks out regularly against attempts by the ultra-Orthodox to impose religious restrictions on Israeli society at large.
“Everything that was proposed, all the so-called compromises, were intended to waste time and fade out the law,” Lieberman said as he entered parliament ahead of the vote.
“It’s a capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox.”
While the prime minister and Likud members blamed Lieberman, others pointed to Netanyahu’s legal troubles as an obstacle.
The main opposition Blue and White, a centrist alliance involving several former military chiefs, said a unity deal with Likud would be possible if Netanyahu would allow someone else from his party to form a government.
Blue and White’s leaders say they cannot join a government led by Netanyahu due to the corruption allegations he faces while the premier is seen as wanting partners willing to support legislation that could result in his immunity.
But there was no sign of Likud members being willing to turn against Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s outgoing government is seen as the most right-wing in Israel’s history, and the coalition he sought to form following the April 9 vote would have been similar if not further to the right.
The upcoming campaign is likely to be fought along similar lines, with Netanyahu already seeking to label Lieberman “part of the left.”
While Lieberman has made his stand on the military conscription issue, his dispute with Netanyahu also runs much deeper.
The two men have been both allies and rivals for much of their political careers, with Lieberman serving as head of the prime minister’s office during part of Netanyahu’s first term in 1996. (Agencies)