Israeli lawmakers dissolved parliament on Thursday, forcing the country’s fifth election in less than four years, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid set to take over as caretaker prime minister at midnight.
The final dissolution bill, which passed with 92 votes in favour and none against, ends the year-long premiership of Naftali Bennett, who led an eight-party coalition that was backed by an Arab party, a first in Israeli history.
Following the vote, Lapid and Bennett immediately swapped seats in the parliament — the Knesset — and Lapid was embraced by members of his centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.
Bennett said late Wednesday that he will not stand in the upcoming election set for November 1, which will see veteran right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu attempt to reclaim power.
Netanyahu has promised that his alliance of right-wingers, ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties will win the upcoming vote, but opinion polls show he may also struggle to rally a parliamentary majority.
Bennett will host Lapid for a handover ceremony later Thursday, the prime minister’s office said.
The outgoing premier will also hand the leadership of his religious nationalist Yamina party to his long-time political ally, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Netanyahu’s main challenger will likely be long-time foe Lapid, a former celebrity news anchor who has surprised many since being dismissed as a lightweight when he entered politics a decade ago.
Bennett’s motley alliance formed with Lapid in June 2021 offered a reprieve from an unprecedented era of political gridlock, ending Netanyahu’s record 12 consecutive years in power and passing Israel’s first state budget since 2018.
As the pair announced plans to end their coalition last week, Lapid sought to cast Netanyahu’s potential return to office as a national threat.
“What we need to do today is go back to the concept of Israeli unity. Not to let dark forces tear us apart from within,” Lapid said.
Bennett led a coalition of right-wingers, centrists, doves and Islamists from the Raam faction, which made history by becoming the first Arab party to support an Israeli government since the Jewish state’s creation.
But the alliance, united by its desire to oust Netanyahu and break a damaging cycle of inconclusive elections, was imperilled from the outset by its ideological divides.
Bennett said the final straw was a failure to renew a measure that ensures the roughly 475,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank live under Israeli law.
Some Arab lawmakers in the coalition refused to back a bill they said marked a de facto endorsement of a 55-year occupation that has forced West Bank Palestinians to live under Israeli rule.
For Bennett, a staunch supporter of settlements, allowing the so-called West Bank law to expire was intolerable. Dissolving parliament before its June 30 expiration temporarily renews the measure.
In the weeks before his coalition unravelled, Bennett sought to highlight its successes, including what he characterised as proof that ideological rivals can govern together.
“No one should give up their positions, but it is certainly possible and necessary to put aside, for a while, ideological debates and take care of the economy, security and future of the citizens of Israel,” he said in his farewell address Wednesday, which did not rule out a eventual return to politics.
Bennett will stay on as alternate prime minister responsible for Iran policy, as world powers take steps to revive stalled talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Israel opposes a restoration of the 2015 agreement that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme.
Lapid will retain his foreign minister title while serving as Israel’s 14th premier. He will find himself under an early microscope, with US President Joe Biden due in Jerusalem in two weeks.
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