The leaders of Israel’s coalition government dropped a political bombshell this week by announcing that they would submit legislation to dissolve the country’s parliament the Knesset. The decision is meant as a preemptive move to prevent similar action by the opposition led by Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the coming days.
According to a deal between leader of the Yamina Party Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, legislation will be submitted to dissolve parliament within days and to hold early elections. The leaders also agreed that Lapid would take over from Bennett as prime minister and continue to hold his Foreign Ministry portfolio.
The leaders decided to dissolve the Knesset due to their failure to maintain the current governing coalition, as well as many other crises that have taken place in recent weeks.
Most notably, there was the resignation of Nir Orbach from the Yamina Party in reaction to the coalition’s failing to pass the emergency regulations law that applies Israeli law to settlements in the West Bank. The legislation was opposed by Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the Meretz Party and Mazen Ghanaim of the United Arab List.
Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi, named as “rebels” by Israel’s Hebrew media, caused the collapse of the government coalition and exhausted attempts to stabilise it from within.
Coalition leaders said dissolving the Knesset would block Netanyahu’s return to power, especially after it was revealed that Likud was already talking with members of the government coalition to form a new right-wing government during the current Knesset session and without holding new elections.
The dissolution could give the parties in the ruling coalition an opportunity to rearrange their political cards and expel the “rebels,” though it does not guarantee their return to power. Some of the parties in the coalition may not meet the electoral threshold in the upcoming elections (four seats out of 120 in the Knesset), further indicating the critical political situation in Israel.
The Israeli opposition is continuing with its attempts to form a new right-wing government in the present Knesset, even though opinion polls show that Likud and other right-wing parties would win more votes in any future elections and some members of the current coalition government have departed the political scene.
However, the opposition cannot form any government without the help of parties in the incumbent coalition. As a result, Israel will likely return to the political crisis that preceded the formation of the incumbent government.
In order to avoid this, Israelis will return to the polls for the latest in a series of parliamentary elections designed to prolong Lapid’s tenure as prime minister and similar to what happened to Netanyahu before he was removed from power.
But repeatedly dissolving the Knesset will not in itself solve the apparent inability of the right, left, or centre blocs from forming a stable government supported by more than 61 out of the 120 Knesset members. This means that parties of different stripes are forced to forge alliances that quickly collapse due to diverging views.
The political crisis in Israel coincides with a planned trip by US President Joe Biden to the Middle East on 13-16 July, including Saudi Arabia where he will attend a summit meeting bringing together the leaders of nine countries, including those who are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Biden will also stop in Israel and the Palestinian Territories to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his trip.
The trip is significant for US relations with the Arab countries and developments in the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Tel Aviv is hoping it will prompt its “integration” into the Middle East and settle its confrontation with Iran, especially after the failure of the Vienna talks to bring Iran and the US back into the nuclear deal.
Relations between Iran and Israel have been strained by Tel Aviv’s threats against Tehran, in which it has accused Iran of trying to target Israelis in Turkey in reaction to claims that Israel has been behind the killing of scientists and military officials in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Israel has announced it is creating a US-led coalition against Iran in an escalation that could lead Israel to launch a military strike against Iran. The aim would be to obstruct Iran’s nuclear programme, which has reached levels that Israel considers dangerous and bringing it close to becoming a nuclear power.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) views Biden’s visit as an opportunity to restore relations with the US after a lull during former US president Donald Trump’s tenure. It also wants to restore Washington’s role in the Middle East peace process such that the US takes more equitable positions towards the Palestinians.
However, the importance the PA attaches to the visit is not matched by the US with regard to the Palestinians.
Washington will likely be more focused on Iran’s nuclear programme during talks with Israeli officials, as well as on diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab countries and domestic complications caused by the collapse of the government coalition led by Bennett and Lapid.
This reduces the likelihood of a breakthrough in the US position regarding talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.
During meetings between Palestinian and US officials in Ramallah last week, the PA discussed the issues it wants to present to Biden during his talks with Abbas. These include the creation of a political atmosphere conducive to the pursuit of the peace process with Israel after the talks were suspended eight years ago and developments took place on the ground that have complicated the possibility of creating an independent Palestinian state.
The PA also wants the US to open a consulate in Occupied Jerusalem, which would be an implicit recognition by Washington that East Jerusalem is the Palestinian capital. Israel opposes such a move. The PA also wants the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the highest Palestinian executive authority, in Washington to be re-opened after their closure in September 2018.
It wants US funding estimated at $500 million annually to be restored after it was suspended under Trump as part of a decision to stop all funding to the Palestinians, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and some development and relief agencies in the Palestinian Territories.
While the Biden administration has since paid its share of UNRWA funds and of the funds due to some Palestinian institutions in Occupied Jerusalem, it continues to withhold direct funding to the PA.
In Israel, the domestic scene has been casting a shadow over Biden’s trip, but US Ambassador to Tel Aviv Thomas Nides said it would proceed as planned despite the dissolution of the Knesset and early elections, with Lapid welcoming Biden.
However, Biden will find it difficult to present proposals opening up political prospects between the Palestinians and Israel due to the interim government that will be in place until the elections are held or until Israel’s right-wing comes to power again under Netanyahu.
The political turmoil in Israel in recent years has often impacted its relations with the PA. Four parliamentary elections in two years have caused domestic issues to dominate the Israeli agenda, and Netanyahu early took unilateral positions towards the Palestinians that increased the political estrangement between the two sides.
The complexities of Israel’s domestic scene and the absence of a government capable of taking major decisions, such as returning to the peace process, have caused Washington to avoid putting pressure on successive Israeli governments. This will make Biden’s meeting with Abbas no more than a “palliative” one, according to Palestinian political analyst Talal Okal.
Okal told Al-Ahram Weekly that Biden’s visit would not succeed in creating a path for the peace process to restart, and at best it would result in the US administration implementing some of its promises, such as reopening the PLO offices in Washington.
He noted there were other more pressing issues on the US agenda, such as the war in Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear programme after the failure of the nuclear deal.
Okal said that Biden could pressure Israel into taking a more definite position on the side of the US-NATO alliance against Russia, a more pressing issue for Washington than the Palestinian issue.
However, the PA said it had suspended implementing important steps in its relationship with Israel until Biden’s visit. Previously, it had decided to implement decisions made by the Palestinian Central Council on withdrawing recognition of Israel in protest against the latter’s unilateral actions.
Foreign Ministry adviser Ahmed Al-Deek said that “the Palestinian president threatened to implement the decisions of the Central Council to suspend recognition of Israel and end the PA’s commitments to all agreements with it until it recognises a Palestinian state. But US mediators told us that Biden would come to the region and it would be important to listen to what he has to say.”
Al-Deek said the PA’s suspension of measures that could lead to an escalation of the situation was about “giving a new chance to what can be done before implementing these decisions.” He added that consultations had taken place with the Arab countries and international parties about the Central Council’s decisions and Abbas had been persuaded to delay until Biden’s visit.
Israeli and US reports indicate that Biden has little to offer the Palestinians, and the PA’s patience is running out due to internal crises and pressure by the Palestinian group Hamas to carve out a greater role for itself in the West Bank.
This has put greater pressure on the PA to present a political project that is convincing to Palestinian public opinion.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.