Early elections in Israel: Things to know

Jerusalem, IsraelUpdated: Dec 26, 2018, 06:44 PM IST
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Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking to reach a plea bargain in his corruption trial (file photo). Photograph:(AFP)

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Early elections are the norm in Israel, no government has served out its full term since 1988.

Israel's government decided this week to dissolve parliament and hold early elections on April 9, seven months before their November due date.

Here are questions and answers on where things stand as polls show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to win despite corruption allegations against him.

Why early elections?

Early elections are the norm in Israel — no government has served out its full term since 1988 — and there had long been speculation that snap polls were again on the horizon.

Since defence minister Avigdor Lieberman stepped down in November, Netanyahu's coalition has been struggling with a one-seat majority.

Lieberman had opposed a controversial ceasefire deal for the Hamas-held Gaza Strip, and his party's withdrawal from government deprived the coalition of five seats.

Party leaders have failed to agree on a key bill regulating drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army, and that was the immediate reason to call elections.

In a joint statement on Monday, leaders of parties in the coalition said their decision was "in the name of budgetary and national responsibility."

Analysts, however, say that Netanyahu wanted the elections before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces whether he will indict the premier in three different corruption cases. While no official timeframe has been given, reports say that announcement could come in mid-April.

The thinking is that a fresh electoral mandate would leave Netanyahu better placed to combat potential charges. 

It would allow him to ramp up his argument that the investigations against him stem from a plot by political enemies to force him from office against the will of the electorate.

He is not required to step down if indicted.

Who is expected to win?

Despite Netanyahu's recent legal and political troubles, polls conducted after Monday's announcement indicate he would retain power after new elections, putting him in line to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

The opposition to Netanyahu is fractured. The centre-left Zionist Union, led by Avi Gabbay, and Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid are the largest groupings.

Wildcard figures could emerge, including former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, as polls show he could perform well in elections if he decides to create a new party or join an existing one.

The intentions of opposition chief Tzipi Livni, a longtime politician and former minister, are also being closely watched. 

The alliance with Gabbay - her Hatnuah party is under the Zionist Union umbrella — is seen as an uneasy one and their electoral strategy is unclear.

Netanyahu's current coalition is seen as the most right-wing in Israel's history. He says he would like to have a similar grouping after elections.

What about the security situation?

After months of violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors on the Gaza border, the situation has calmed to a certain extent, thanks in part to a deal that saw Israel facilitate the transfer of millions of dollars into Gaza from Qatar's government.

The occupied West Bank remains largely calm, though recent sporadic attacks triggered Israeli raids in response.

Israel's northern border with Lebanon may play a role in the campaign.

When initially spoke out against early elections last month, he noted an unspecified sensitive security situation facing the country.

It was an apparent reference to a military operation to destroy Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon that was announced earlier this month.

There was speculation in November that Netanyahu wanted to delay calling new elections until anger over the Gaza ceasefire calmed.

Since Monday's election announcement, the premier has faced questions over why now is a good time for elections if last month was not. He says the tunnel operation is now nearly complete.

What about Trump's peace plan?

US President Donald Trump's "ultimate deal" for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the details of which are unknown to the public, was supposed to be unveiled by the end of the year, but will probably be delayed due to the elections.

Netanyahu, who has been backed strongly by Trump and his administration, said he was "looking forward" to working with the peace plan.

Palestinian leaders, who severed ties with Trump's administration after his decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and declare the city Israel's capital, have already said they will have nothing to do with the peace plan.

A senior White House official said on Monday that the United States was "evaluating the timing of the release of the peace plan" in the wake of the newly called elections.