The unruly Israeli eight-party coalition of centre, left and right-wing parties as well as an independent Arab party that a year ago surprised almost everybody when it succeeded in forming a government collapsed last week.
Israel will have to hold its fifth election in three and a half years, while Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges, has been thrown a lifeline and a chance to return to power.
Yair Lapid, the current Foreign Minister and the leader of Israel's second-largest party Yesh Atid, will become the interim Prime Minister and lead the country until next October or November when the elections will be held. It is noteworthy that Lapid allowed Naftali Bennett, leader of the much smaller Yamina Party, to take the first turn as Prime Minister.
In the previous elections, Netanyahu's Likud party had won the most votes, but Netanyahu did not manage to cobble together the 61 seats necessary to form a government and so the mandate was given to Yair Lapid. To everyone's surprise, Lapid succeeded in forming an eight-party coalition government, united basically by their distaste for Netanyahu. This coalition, however, had only a razor-thin majority in the Knesset (the 120-member Israeli Parliament).
The coalition government collapsed because three parliamentarians of Bennett's Yamina party left the coalition and because the government did not have enough votes to extend for another five years a law differentiating between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank. If this law is not extended, the Israeli government will soon face a huge problem in policing the West Bank area.
Seven Arab members of the United Arab List (Ra'am), which was part of the government coalition, refused to vote for this Law and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett decided that he had to step down.
In his last interview as Prime Minister, Bennett attacked Netanyahu and his Likud party "as a danger to the state of Israel," saying that it "was ready to burn the state if we don't give it to them." He also stressed that "Netanyahu's poison machine caught the weakest links on the left and the right and worked tirelessly until the links broke."
It should be noted that Bennett's government has succeeded in passing the budget- which had not been approved for three years- managed to avoid new lockdowns due to the covid pandemic and avoided a big escalation of tensions with Islamist Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip as well as of the dangers of ethnic violence between Palestinians and Jews in the streets of several Israeli cities.
Yair Lapid, 58, who heads Yesh Atid will serve as caretaker Prime Minister until the elections are held and until a government is formed- which is a rather long process, as the electoral system gives disproportionate influence to small parties.
The big parties have to carry out difficult negotiations with the small parties and promise to accept a long list of demands in order to convince them to join a coalition that would garner the minimum threshold of 61 Knesset members to form a government.
Interim Prime Minister Lapid is a former TV host who also served as finance and foreign minister. He is popular with secular middle-class Israelis and is seen domestically as a centrist who supports negotiations with the Palestinians, although he also described himself as a "security hawk."
Undoubtedly, Lapid will have to face a lot of serious problems such as the escalation of the secret war between Israel and Iran, find ways of dealing with rising Palestinian attacks on Israelis, without causing a war with Hamas, and restore good relations with the United States, during President Joe Biden's visit to Israel next month.
Netanyahu's Likud party is once again expected to emerge as the biggest party in the coming elections, but it is highly unlikely that it will achieve the necessary majority of 61 Knesset members to form a government. So, it would have to form a coalition with the religious parties, as it did in the past.
Once again, elections will revolve around the question of whether Netanyahu is suitable to lead Israel, given that he is currently facing three separate trials: one about receiving quite expensive gifts, another that he sought preferential treatment from a telecom company and a third that he solicited favourable media coverage. Netanyahu denies breaking the law.
Once again Israel will be divided between those who support Netanyahu, seeing him as a great leader, the only politician capable of leading the country, and who are willing to fight for him tooth and nail and those who want to oust him because they consider him a danger to Israeli democracy. The latter see Netanyahu as somebody who sought to abolish the independence of the Judiciary, has encouraged right-wing extremism and does not hesitate to resort to dirty tricks and spread fake news to ensure his political survival.
Netanyahu can effectively hold Israeli politics hostage: He has enough support to stop his right-wing rivals from creating an alternative coalition, while at the same time the centrist and left-wing parties usually do not win enough popular vote to form a viable government.
Haaretz journalist Yossi Verter points out: "Netanyahu isn't there to play games. If he forms a government, it will be committed to one task: cancelling his corruption trial and making mincemeat of his prosecutors. Anyone who doesn't go along with him won't be part of the system. The four previous elections, from 2019 to 2021, were born in the same context, a defendant fleeing a conviction." (ANI)