Just one month after the inauguration of the 21st Knesset, parliamentarians voted to disband the government and send the country into national elections for the second time in six months.
The Knesset vote came after a tension-filled last-minute effort by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formulate a majority ruling coalition of at least 61 Knesset members before the midnight deadline between Wednesday and Thursday. But that effort came up short. Netanyahu’s political nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to bring his five-member Yisrael Beiteinu Party into the government, despite recommending Netanyahu as prime minister, leaving the coalition just one Knesset member shy of a clear majority.
When it became clear that Netanyahu would not form a government, he told the media, “We are heading to new elections. I did everything possible to create a governing coalition, but it is clear that from the beginning Lieberman never planned to join my government.”
Lieberman claimed that his refusal centered on a proposed law that would increase the number of haredi conscripts drafted into the military. Lieberman’s secular Russian party wanted the proposed law to pass, while two religious parties who were critical to the formation of Netanyahu’s government wanted to reduce the numbers.
Lieberman told the Knesset that his party “refuses to join a halachic government,” implying that the religious parties would run the country based on Jewish law.
In the run-up to the fateful vote, Netanyahu feverishly attempted to devise compromises, as well as woo opposition members into the government to gain a parliamentary majority.
The most dramatic moment of the night took place at around 7 p.m. when the prime minister offered Knesset member Avi Gabay, chairman of the Labor Party, the deal of a lifetime. He offered the Labor Party control of the finance ministry, plus three other ministries, if they would join his government. Knowing that Labor would not support him if he continued pursuing legislation granting him immunity from prosecution and laws curtailing the power of the supreme court (bills that Likud had already been preparing for this Knesset term), Netanyahu promised to shelve both of those agenda items. Gabay and Labor’s six mandates would provide the prime minister and Likud with a comfortable 66-seat majority.
While Gabay seemed to take the offer seriously, four Labor MKs rejected immediately. Itzik Shmuly told JNS that he immediately objected to the deal “because at the end of the day, I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror. Yes, Netanyahu said no law for immunity, but he did say he would require our support for immunity via the Knesset House Committee. I cannot accept giving the prime minister immunity in return for ministries and power.”
At around 7:45 p.m. after meeting with the Knesset members in his party, Gabay announced that he refused the prime minister’s offer.
Another dramatic turn came when Likud offered Druze member of Blue and White Gadeer Mree (the first Druze woman yet in the Israeli Knesset) a position in the government, alongside changes to the Jewish Nation-State Law that the Druze community finds offensive. She turned down the offer.
There were rumors throughout the evening that the haredi parties could cave and give in on the enlistment legislation because of their concern that they would lose votes in the new election. In addition, the haredim do anything to avoid elections revolving around religion and state issues that generate significant negativity towards their community. And sure enough, at around 11 p.m., the word got out that the leading rabbi in the ultra-Orthodox community instructed the haredi MKs to do whatever they could to prevent new elections. But those efforts were to no avail, as they simply could not accept the legislation Lieberman was demanding as a condition for entry into the government.
At approximately 11 p.m., the prime minister’s motorcade pulled up to the Knesset, and as he entered the building, Netanyahu told the media: “We are heading to new elections.”
And that is exactly what happened.
As the clock struck 12, the secretary of the Knesset called out the names of each Knesset member in alphabetical order, and the MK replied either “in favor” or “against.” In a wild twist, 45 Knesset members from the parties that did not support Netanyahu and should have been anxious to support new elections voted against the law. They argued that new elections prevented the president from giving Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party that tied the Likud with 35 MKs, with the mandate to try to form a government following Netanyahu’s failure to do so.
But 74 MKs—the 60 seats from parties supporting Netanyahu, Lieberman’s five MKs and the 10 Arab MKs—voted in favor of the law.
And that is how, at the end of an immensely intense day and exactly one month after it was inaugurated, the 21st Knesset came to an end.