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Epic rift sends Israel to polls

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November 24, 2016 23:21

Israel was set on the path to early elections this week after relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the two centrist parties in his coalition, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, collapsed amid a storm of recrimination.

On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu fired Treasury Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, accusing them of a "putsch" - a reference to rumours that the two ministers have been trying form an alternative coalition.

Mr Lapid countered that the prime minister had "failed in his management of the country", and Ms Livni called Mr Netanyahu a "hysterical" liar.

On Wednesday, the Knesset faction heads met to agree on 17th March, 2015 as the election date and, later in the afternoon, the 19th Knesset voted to dissolve itself. This was the second-shortest serving Knesset in Israel's history.

If, as expected, he wins the Likud leadership primaries next month, Mr Netanyahu will be fighting his sixth election as his party's candidate for prime minister after ending his third term in power two and a half years early.

The pivotal moment this week came on Monday evening when Mr Lapid met Mr Netanyahu in an effort by both men to patch up their differences and reduce tensions within the coalition.

Very few believed it had any chance of succeeding, however, or that Mr Netanyahu had any interest in keeping his coalition afloat by that stage.

As the Finance Minister was leaving the meeting, Mr Netanyahu's aides were already sending reporters a list of demands that had been made to Mr Lapid that it was clear he would never be able to meet. Those included requests for a freeze on Yesh Atid's main budgetary programmes and a commitment to cooperating within the coalition.

For the past few weeks, the political scene has been rife with rumours that Mr Lapid was trying to form an alternative coalition - a charge he has denied - and that the prime minister was offering the Charedi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism places in the coalition instead of Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. The rabbinical leaders of these parties turned the offer down, preferring to go to early elections on the understanding they would be invited to join his new coalition.

Mr Netanyahu never wanted to lead the current coalition but the alliance forged two years ago by Mr Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett forced him to take in their parties and leave out his preferred Charedi partners.

At a press conference on Tuesday night, Mr Netanyahu said: "I will not agree to an opposition within the government… from this current government it's impossible to lead the country. My job as prime minister is to take care of citizens, to bring down the cost of living and take care of security. From this current government I can't do that."

While there have been a number of issues causing tension between Mr Netanyahu and his centrist ministers - most recently Mr Lapid's demand for zero VAT on new homes and Ms Livni's refusal to vote for the Jewish-State law - sources close to all three ministers said that the fundamental reason for the government's demise was their inability to work together.

After she was fired, Ms Livni said she "despised Netanyahu's fearful behaviour. He couldn't even look me in the eye, but he made his choice". She called the prime minister a "little politician".

The elections will be fought largely on individual politicians' credibility, particularly on whether Israelis want to see Mr Netanyahu in power once again or whether there is someone else capable of the top job.

The prime minister's popularity has been on the wane but while 38 per cent of Israelis in a recent poll still saw him as the best candidate, no other leaders passed the 20 per cent mark.

Over the next two months, the parties will hold primaries; the campaign will start in earnest in February.

Due to a new much higher electoral threshold - 3.25 per cent of the vote - a number of smaller parties, particularly the three Israeli-Arab parties currently in the Knesset, will most likely run on joint lists.

The new threshold will affect parties in all the blocs however.

Far-right Tekuma, which ran in the last elections together with Habayit Hayehudi and has been considering going it alone, will be wary of doing so if polls indicate it may not pass the threshold. This could cost the right wing valuable votes.

Kadima, now down to only two seats, will almost certainly be wiped out if it tries to run independently.

Even Ms Livni's Hatnuah, which has six seats, is expected to link up witheither Labour or Yesh Atid rather than risk not getting into the next Knesset.

There were hopes that the change to the threshold would cause a greater coalescence and a shift to larger parties, but for now it seems that the trend is towards medium-sized parties and even Mr Netanyahu's Likud, while still the largest in the polls, is polling at little over 20 seats.

Polls now indicate that the right-wing and religious bloc - which is expected to support a Netanyahu government - still has a majority of around 55 per cent. But these polls are the starting point of what is promising to be a relentlessly negative campaign.

There is also a wild-card that could jeopardise a Netanyahu victory. Former communications minister Moshe Kahlon is planning a new party focused on social issues. The polls put his party at between six and 12 seats. If he takes enough seats away from the right-wing and religious bloc, he could join the centre-left coalition, enabling the leader of one of Likud's rivals to become Israel's next prime minister.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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