Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has somehow retained his popularity with the Israeli electorate despite the fact that he and his wife Sarah Netanyahu (who was indicted back in June) have been implicated in several corruption and bribery scandals. If prosecutors accept the advice of Israeli police, the prime minister could face criminal charges in the new year.
But none of this has apparently deterred Netanyahu from a risky political gambit: On Monday, Netanyahu and the leaders of Israel’s coalition government formally dissolved the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and hold early elections as soon as April in order to try and win a broader majority that will allow them to pass a controversial military conscription reform bill that has alienated some far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition. The Knesset is expected to approve the dissolution during a Wednesday vote.
According to the Washington Post, which cited local media reports, the election will likely take place on April 9. During the vote, Netanyahu is hoping to expand his coalition’s razor-thin one-vote majority in the legislative body (various member parties control 61 of 120 votes), which would (in theory) allow him to pass a bill aimed at making it easier to draft ultra-orthodox Israeli’s into the Israeli Defense Force, which has been struggling in recent years with a shortage of man power.
As it stands, all Israelis must serve at least two years in the IDF. But most ultra-othodox jews who study in the country’s Yeshivas have been exempted from this rule. The new law, if passed, would mandate service from all ultra-orthodox men except the very best scholars.
Netanyahu publicized his decision in a tweet:
יש לנו הישגים אדירים בכל תחום, ויש לנו עוד הרבה עבודה לטובת אזרחי ישראל ומדינת ישראל. בעזרת השם ובעזרתכם – נקבל את אמון הבוחר ונמשיך לעבוד! pic.twitter.com/0s40etR7mc
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) December 24, 2018
Likud’s governing coalition has been struggling since the Nov. 14 resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who stepped down over the government’s handling of demonstrations along the border between Israeli territory and the Gaza Strip.
Making the situation worse for Likud, after Liberman’s resignation, ultranationalist Education Minister Naftali Bennett threatened to withdraw his Jewish Home party from the governing coalition if Netanyahu didn’t allow him to take over defense duties. Instead, Netanyahu said he was determined to add the defense minister post to his responsibilities (the prime minister also occupies the roles of foreign minister, immigration minister and health minister), forcing Naftali to backtrack.
But the final straw that lead to the vote appeared to be an earlier announcement from opposition leader Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who said his party would not support the conscription reform bill.
Drafting a law that all of Netanyahu’s coalition members would support has proven impossible, so without a stronger majority, or a popular mandate to force more support from the opposition, the bill would have little chance of passing. Centrist critics have accused Netanyahu of not going far enough with the bill and “surrendering to the orthodox”, while the orthodox oppose all efforts to extend conscription to their community.
Netanyahu remains very popular in Israel, and has vowed to stay on and fight any criminal charges that might arise. According to Reuters, recent polls show he has a good chance of winning the votes he needs to strengthen his position. But if he falters, he could face a challenge from the center as well as from his right. No one in the Likud Party has said they would challenge Netanyahu, and he’s expected to retain his position as prime minister barring a major upset.