Israel Heads to Elections

What happened on Monday that caused the national elections to be moved up? When will the Knesset dissolve? Why were the elections scheduled on April 9? Whom did Netanyahu describe as “Houdini” and why? What will happen on January 15, when the court ruled that the current draft law will expire? Why did Ze’ev Elkin claim that the opposition will come to regret having pressed for the elections to be moved up? Here are the answers to all your questions about this week’s dramatic events in Israel.

If there is such a thing as a political tsunami, then it came this past Monday, when the Knesset decided to dissolve itself without any advance warning. The elections for the Twenty-First Knesset will be held in three months.

The possibility of early elections had been discussed many times, and it was known that the controversy surrounding the draft law might lead to that eventuality. It was speculated that Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu might choose to go to elections due to the criminal investigations surrounding him. But despite all that, everyone was taken by surprise when it finally happened. The shock was evident.

The Knesset was in turmoil. All meetings were canceled, every topic on the agenda suddenly seemed irrelevant, and senior government officials were at a loss for words. On the second floor, where the government offices are located, reporters congregated and vied to ensnare interesting people to interview. The press is required to remain within a designated area near the prime minister’s office, but they made every effort to take advantage of their proximity to the ministers of the government. None of them took interest in what was happening in the Knesset itself, which closed its sitting unusually early. In the Knesset cafeteria, people sat around the tables in shock,

Ze’ev Elkin is a government minister and a member of Netanyahu’s inner circle. On Monday evening, while everyone was still reeling from the latest developments, he said to me, “The opposition wanted an election. Well, now they will have one. The election is going to be moved up solely because of Yair Lapid. The prime minister would have preferred for the government to continue operating until October or November. And I promise you,” he added, “that they will come to regret this. They will suffer heavy losses in this election.” For some reason, Elkin is also angry with Avigdor Lieberman…

Indeed, the polls show that Netanyahu himself is the one person who should enter this election with confidence. Lapid is lagging in the polls, and Lieberman has been shown to be even less popular. There is talk of a new rising star on the political scene: Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the IDF, who is considered to be worth about ten mandates, but that is a separate story.

I spoke with Moshe Gafni and Aryeh Deri, the leaders of Degel HaTorah and the Shas party. They are not exactly dancing in the Knesset corridors, and they have no interest in antagonizing anyone by reacting to the latest news with glee, but they seemed pleased with the development. They are confident that the best possible draft law will be passed after the coming elections. They are also certain that the date that has been set for the election, at the beginning of Nissan, is very good for the chareidi community. Moreover, they feel that the chareidi sector will have excellent prospects if the election is held at this time. Of course, they had hoped that the election would not be triggered by the issue of the draft law. This will give Yair Lapid endless ammunition to use against the chareidi community. Gafni was quick to declare in an interview on Monday evening that Lapid and the draft law were not the reasons that the election was moved up. He is trying to prevent Lapid from capitalizing on the potential for incitement.

It was on Monday evening that everything fell apart. The Knesset secretariat, which is supposed to release the Knesset’s schedule for the entire week on Mondays, was forced to issue multiple notices. That evening, an updated notice from the Knesset speaker’s office informed the country’s lawmakers, “On Wednesday, the 18th of Teves 5779/December 26, 2018, we will begin the sitting with urgent parliamentary queries. After that, the bill for the dissolution of the Knesset will be brought for its first reading. After the debate, the proposal will be transferred to the Knesset Committee to be prepared for its second and third readings. During the discussion in the Knesset Committee, the Knesset will continue its sitting and will discuss urgent motions on the agenda. When the Knesset Committee completes its discussion, the proposal for the dissolution of the Knesset will be brought for its second and third readings.” To make a long story short, the plan is for the bill that will dissolve the Knesset to be passed in a rapid procedure on Wednesday.

Preparations for Shuvu Are Shelved

On Monday morning, there was a meeting in the Knesset in preparation for the arrival of an American delegation from Shuvu. Every year, a group of Shuvu representatives arrives in Israel, where they are taken to visit the gedolim and to see a couple of the organization’s schools in action. This time, it is scheduled to be a brief visit. They plan to arrive on January 12 and to depart on January 16. One of the highlights of the annual Shuvu trip is the delegation’s visit to the Knesset. Last year, they met with most of the chareidi members of the Knesset, including Moshe Gafni and Aryeh Deri, as well as Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein. This year, they were supposed to meet with the prime minister. It was assumed that Netanyahu would be present in the Knesset building during their visit, and he was planning on meeting with them. The administration of Shuvu was asked to write a detailed letter of request for the meeting, which they have already done.

On Monday morning, a meeting was held in the Knesset in order to make the final arrangements for their visit. The prime minister’s office announced that it agreed in principle to meet with the delegation. The meeting was also attended by members of the Knesset staff, who would have to allocate a room for the delegation and to arrange for the visitors’ bus to be permitted to drive up to the building. In short, until the moment the bombshell was dropped, everyone was assuming that the Knesset would still be functioning normally in the middle of January. Even the prime minister’s staff members were shocked by the developments on Monday afternoon.

It was 2:20 p.m. when the news broke. The word spread like wildfire: The prime minister, with the agreement of the coalition leaders, had decided to disband the Knesset and to call for an early election. The election will be held on the fourth of Nissan, April 9. It was a totally unexpected development; no one had actually been thinking about moving up the election until that day. There was some talk about the possibility, but it was never seen as a serious consideration. The prime minister insisted that he preferred to hold the next election in November 2019, when it was originally scheduled to take place. Even his own subordinates were busy meeting with the leaders of Shuvu in Israel and with the advisors of the chareidi Knesset members when the announcement was made. But as soon as the news arrived, the meeting could have been ended on the spot. There is no reason now to assume that the prime minister will be in the Knesset building during the delegation’s visit. In fact, the entire building is likely to be empty; there is probably no reason for them to come to the Knesset this year.

Elections During Bein Hazemanim

Why is the election scheduled to be held on April 9? For one thing, the law states that an election must always be held on a Tuesday. Another law states that there must be a period of at least three months between the dissolution of the Knesset and an election. There can be a longer delay, but the three-month minimum must be observed. As of now, the Knesset is scheduled to dissolve itself on Wednesday, December 26. The election will then take place three and a half months later.

Allow me to share a little secret with you: Prime Minister Netanyahu would not have minded scheduling the election for an earlier date, at the end of Adar Sheini (on April 2 or even March 26). His chareidi coalition partners, however, pushed for the election to be held on April 9, so that it will take place during bein hazemanim.

The election was moved up for one reason only: because of the draft law. The most recent draft law, as you certainly recall, was struck down by the Supreme Court. The government recently appealed to the court for an extension of the deadline for passing a new law on the grounds that Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister made it impossible to proceed with the law that he had drafted. The court granted the government an extension that was only half of what it had asked for, setting a new deadline of January 15 for the passage of a new law. If a law is not passed by that time, then there will be no legal arrangement governing the draft exemptions for yeshiva bochurim, and it is impossible to predict what will happen then.

Netanyahu was planning to pass the new draft law this week. However, Agudas Yisroel informed him unequivocally that they would resign from the government if the law passed in its current form. At the same time, Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Lieberman’s Yisroel Beiteinu party both announced that if even a single letter of the law was changed, they would vote against it.

Netanyahu was actually willing to pass the law as it had been written, with the support of Yesh Atid and Yisroel Beiteinu, despite Agudas Yisroel’s threat. (Deep down, he probably believed that they were bluffing.) But then the situation reached a turning point: When Yair Lapid found out about Netanyahu’s difficult situation, he announced that his party would oppose the bill, even though they had always supported it and had even voted in favor of the bill in its preliminary reading. In fact, they had boasted that the bill was similar to the law that they themselves had passed during the previous Knesset. Their change of heart was prompted by only one thing: the scent of political blood. When an opportunity arose to topple the government, they were willing to make a complete about-face in order to achieve that.

Unlike Lapid, Lieberman remained consistent. He praised the coalition for its decision to dissolve the Knesset. He claimed that he had not coordinated with Lapid, and he insisted that even if Lapid opposed the bill, he would back it if it were brought to a vote without being altered. For Netanyahu, however, Lieberman’s support was not enough. If Lapid remained opposed to the bill, then Yisroel Beiteinu’s votes would not help it pass. And Lapid had announced that he would vote against the bill. That act of zigzagging led Netanyahu to refer to him disparagingly as “Houdini.”

Yair Lapid had an excuse prepared for his change of heart. On Monday morning, he announced to every media outlet that the law concerning the draft (giyus) was nothing but a ploy for “fundraising” (giyus kesafim); Lapid has always had a slick tongue. He made this claim because Dudi Amsalem, the coalition chairman, tried to appease Agudas Yisroel by claiming that if it becomes necessary to impose economic sanctions on the yeshivos due to their failures to meet the draft quotas, the government will find alternative means of funding them. In response, Lapid shrieked that the draft law is a hoax. “It’s our bill,” he proclaimed, “but they have made the economic sanctions meaningless.”

Backtracking on his support for the draft law certainly did not improve Lapid’s public image. He has emerged from this episode having broadcast the message that he places politics above all else, and that he is willing to renege on his prior commitments in order to arrange for an early election. Nevertheless, the essential fact remained: Yesh Atid was going to vote against the bill.

Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately realized that it was very unclear if there would be a majority vote in favor of the draft law within the next two weeks. If both Yesh Atid and Agudas Yisroel remained determined to oppose the law, it certainly would not garner a majority. Moreover, even Shas and Degel HaTorah didn’t actually plan to vote in favor of the law; they preferred to abstain from the vote and to passively allow it to be passed.

And so Netanyahu found himself in a hopeless situation, facing the irreconcilable demands of Agudas Yisroel, Yisroel Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and the Supreme Court. He has long been pushing off holding an election, but now he felt that he was backed into a corner. Therefore, even though he had asserted many times that he is not interested in moving up the next election, Netanyahu threw in the towel on Monday morning. Lacking any alternative, he decided to dissolve the government.

Netanyahu Attacks Lapid

Every week, the leaders of the coalition parties meet in the Knesset on Monday. At the same time, the leaders of the opposition hold their own meeting. These conferences are used by both sides to plan their political moves for the coming week. Before this past Monday’s meeting, the prime minister invited the coalition leaders to his office, where he described the situation to them and informed them that he had decided to move up the elections. They agreed with him immediately that there was no alternative. The coalition leaders held a brief meeting afterward, and at 2:20 p.m. they released the following statement:

“Out of a sense of fiscal and national responsibility, the leaders of the coalition parties have decided unanimously to dissolve the Knesset and to go to new elections at the beginning of April, following a term of four full years. Our partnership in the Knesset and the government will continue even during the election period.”

At the Likud party meeting, which is also held every Monday in the Knesset building, the prime minister announced, “A month and a half ago, I said that we were in a sensitive period with respect to our security. Today, that situation is almost completely behind us, and it is now necessary for us to go to elections.” The Likud was also quick to point to Yair Lapid, the man who could not be trusted to keep his word, as the reason that the election is to be held early.

During that meeting, Netanyahu effectively launched the new election campaign. He listed his government’s achievements and pointed out that the government had completed a full four years of service and that the decision to hold the election at the beginning of April had been unanimous. Netanyahu also lashed out against Yair Lapid. “The greatest escape artist of all times was a Jew named Houdini,” he said. “He was capable of twisting and writhing in every direction, and thereby escaping from a box in which he had been imprisoned, which was in turn inside a locked chest far beneath the surface of a river. He would get out of those things. I think that Yair Lapid will have to demonstrate the qualities of Houdini, and I think that even that will not be enough to extricate himself now. Lapid promised to support the draft law if it was brought to a vote exactly as it is written. He called on us to bring it to the Knesset, and we have done so, but now he says that he will not support it.” Netanyahu announced that the draft law would not be brought to a vote because it does not have the majority that it will need in order to pass. “Our friends the chareidim will not vote for it,” he said, including all three chareidi parties in that statement. “The Arab MKs will not vote for it. Lieberman has said that he will support it, but Lapid said, in an astonishing twist, that he will not support it.”

When he was asked how he expects the law to be approved in the next Knesset after he failed to bring the matter to a successful conclusion in the current Knesset, Netanyahu pointed to himself and said, “Let this Houdini do the work.”

Lapid was quick to respond. “Netanyahu is right,” he proclaimed. “I am a Houdini. If I have managed to topple him with my party of eleven mandates, then I must be a magician. Let him not try to trick us or to use our money to pay the chareidim who are evading the draft,” he proclaimed. Once again, Lapid used inflammatory wording in an effort to turn the tide of public opinion against the chareidim, repeating over and over that “our money” is being used to fund “draft evasion.”

Netanyahu enumerated many of his government’s accomplishments – its economic, diplomatic and military achievements, the average wage in the workplace, and the improvements in transportation, culture, science, energy, and other areas. “Our accomplishments are enormous, and we still have to complete our work,” he said. “With Hashem’s help and with your help, we will do that.”

During the closed portion of the Likud party’s meeting, Netanyahu said, “Nothing is guaranteed; we will have to fight hard for everything. We will marshal all of our strength, and we will have to galvanize the public. The test will be our success in recruiting our supporters – convincing the public to vote for Likud and not for anyone else, and to come out and vote. If we accomplish that, we will be victorious.”

There Were No Deals

Until the bitter end, the Likud party tried to combat Lapid’s invective. When he claimed that there was a “conspiracy” to continue funding the yeshivos “under the table” despite economic sanctions – in keeping with his habit of using incendiary terminology against Netanyahu and the chareidim – the Likud insisted that no such deals had been made with the chareidim. They declared that the draft law is an issue of tremendous gravity and national import, and neither Lapid nor Lieberman should be permitted to turn it into a means of scoring petty political points. “Prime Minister Netanyahu is obligated to the law that was formulated by the IDF and brought to its first reading by Lieberman and with Lapid’s support,” they said. “In contrast to the spins that they are spreading, there have been no deals or agreements made with anyone. The law will be brought exactly in the form in which Lieberman and Lapid supported it in its first reading, without any alteration.”

This statement should have been enough to satisfy Lapid, who has been demanding a clear statement from Netanyahu that the government did not enter into any shady deals with the chareidim. Lapid, however, announced that he still planned to oppose the bill, claiming that he did not believe Netanyahu. This was despite the fact that he had announced last week that if Netanyahu assured him that there were no such agreements with the chareidim, he would accept that assertion and would support the bill.

Late on Monday morning, Lapid announced, “Now, when I have evidence of planned transfers of funds to the chareidim, Netanyahu’s promises that there have been no deals will not help him… Last month, I stood here and demanded that Netanyahu promise us that the chareidim will not receive any sort of monetary benefits to offset the draft law, because that is precisely what they promised the chareidim. They told them, ‘Don’t worry about the economic sanctions. We will give you the money under the table.’ But that makes it a farce. We will not be a party to providing money from the government to those who evade the draft. We will not allow our tax funds to support draft evasion.” This was yet another example of Lapid’s manipulative invective, which was carefully crafted to stoke hatred of the chareidi community.

Yisroel Beiteinu followed his lead. On Monday morning, Lieberman announced, “The coalition, in a cynical move, has changed the draft law from a substantive issue into an electoral issue. The Likud has seen that delaying the vote on the draft law has cost them many votes within the secular right-wing community and the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This leads to a question: Has this been a game all along? Did the Likud promise the chareidi parties that if the yeshivos are fined for not meeting the draft quotas, they will receive identical amounts of funding from a different source? Such a promise would effectively render the bill meaningless.”

But even though he had parroted Lapid’s accusations, Lieberman still claimed that he would support the bill if it remained unchanged. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s political situation left him with no choice but to disband the government.

Waiting for the Next Knesset

What will happen now? In two weeks, when the 15th of January arrives, there will not be a new draft law. But that does not mean that all the yeshiva bochurim will be inducted into the army, or even that they will be facing legal troubles. According to the laws of the State of Israel, when the Knesset disbands, everything else is frozen. It is impossible to enact laws without a Knesset. Therefore, if a law remains in force until January 15, it will continue to remain in effect until a new Knesset is formed, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling. That means that there will be some quiet on this front until May or June. And at that time, the new Knesset will try to pass the law once again.

It is important to note one additional sentence in Lieberman’s statement: “We must also investigate the claim that the Likud promised the leaders of the chareidi parties to change the law in accordance with their demands as soon as the next government is formed.” In fact, the coalition leaders announced that their partnership in the Knesset and the government would continue even during the election period. Netanyahu made this clear in the Likud party meeting, when he declared that “the current coalition will be the nucleus of the next coalition.” Or, to put it plainly, the draft law will be passed by the next coalition. The next Knesset is expected to accomplish what this Knesset could not – passing a draft law and putting an end to the crisis over the draft. Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice, also announced that there is no reason that the current coalition, which includes the Likud, the chareidim, and Bayit Yehudi, should not continue in the next Knesset as well.

After the election, it will take some time for the final picture to become clear. The president will have to meet with representatives of all the parties who are elected to the Knesset, and then to assign the leader of the party with the largest number of mandates to attempt to form a coalition. In all likelihood, this will be the Likud party, with Binyomin Netanyahu at its helm. Once that process is completed, a date will be set for the first session of the new Knesset. And then, once again, the issue of the draft law will become a looming threat. But the next coalition, which will probably be very similar to the current one, will probably pass the new law.