Thursday Jun 30, 2022
JERUSALEM: Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that he would not stand in upcoming elections, hours before parliament was set to dissolve, triggering the country's fifth vote in less than four years.
The premier, who announced last week that his eight-party alliance which took office was no longer tenable, is due to hand power at midnight to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who will lead a caretaker government into polls expected as soon as late October.
"In a short while I'll end my time as prime minister of Israel," said Bennett, who will stay on as alternate premier in the interim government.
"I won't run in the next elections," added Bennett, whose religious nationalist Yamina party faces grim polling numbers.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged that his alliance of right-wingers, ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties will win the upcoming vote, but polls show that he may also struggle rally a parliamentary majority.
Bennett's motley alliance formed in June 2021 offered a reprieve from an unprecedented era of political gridlock, ending Netanyahu's record 12 consecutive years in power and passing Israel's first state budget since 2018.
The anti-Netanyahu camp in forthcoming polls will likely be led by Lapid, a centrist former television anchor who has surprised many since being dismissed as a lightweight when he entered politics a decade ago.
As he and Bennett announced last week their plans to end their coalition, Lapid sought to cast Netanyahu's potential return to office as a national threat.
"What we need to do today is go back to the concept of Israeli unity. Not to let dark forces tear us apart from within," Lapid said.
Lapid is expected to take office at midnight after parliament gives final approval to a dissolution bill, in accordance with the power-sharing deal he agreed with Bennett last June.
Last-minute shock announcements to avert elections are not impossible given Israel's volatile political climate, but it appeared almost certain the country was heading back to the polls, extending the worst political crisis in the Jewish state's 74-year history.
Bennett has led a coalition of right-wingers, centrists, doves and Islamists from the Raam faction, which made history by becoming the first Arab party to support an Israeli government since the Jewish state's creation.
The alliance, united by its desire to oust Netanyahu and break a damaging cycle of inconclusive elections, was imperilled from the outset by its ideological divides.
But Bennett said the final straw was a failure to renew a measure that ensures the roughly 475,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank live under Israeli law.
Some Arab lawmakers in the coalition refused to back a bill they said marked a de facto endorsement of a 55-year occupation that has forced West Bank Palestinians to live under Israeli rule.
For Bennett, a staunch supporter of settlements, allowing the so-called West Bank law to expire was intolerable. Dissolving parliament before its June 30 expiration temporarily renews the measure.
"There is a time for everything, and now is my time to step back and look at things from afar," Bennett said Wednesday.
He will stay on as alternate prime minister and be responsible for Iran policy, as world powers take steps to revive stalled talks on Tehran's nuclear programme.
Israel opposes a restoration of the 2015 agreement that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme.
Lapid will retain his foreign minister title while serving as Israel's 14th premier. He will find himself under an early microscope, with US President Joe Biden due in Jerusalem in two weeks.