Early elections are due to be called in Israel after crunch talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett broke down on Friday without agreement.
Bennett had wanted the defence ministry for his Jewish Home party as a condition for remaining in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, following the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman earlier this week in protest against a Gaza truce.
Lieberman pulled his six-seat Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the coalition, leaving Netanyahu with a slim 61-59 majority, which former Special Forces soldier Bennett seized on, threatening to pull out too if he wasn’t given Lieberman’s old job.
Bennett, who opposed any Palestinian state and who has opposed every ceasefire reached with Hamas over Gaza in recent years, said he wanted to get his hands on the ministry “so Israel could start winning again”.
However his colleagues feared for what this would mean for Israel. Both Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri told Netanyahu that they strongly opposed Bennett as defence minister, urging an early election instead.
Kahlon, a former Likudnik who now leads the centrist ten-seat Kulanu party, and Deri, the leader of seven-seat strictly Orthodox party Shas, are both likely to return slightly lower numbers in the election, if early polling proves accurate.
Netanyahu’s Likud currently has 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and is expected to return as parliament’s biggest party. However, his right-wing rival Bennett, who once worked for Netanyahu, is expected to see his Jewish Home increase its influence.
The party, which represents settlers, currently has eight seats but early polling predicted this could rise to 12, while the centrist party Yesh Atid – led by former TV presenter Yair Lapid – is also expected to do well, going from 11 seats to 17.
This would mean Yesh Atid would become the second biggest party if the left-leaning Zionist Union suffers the substantial electoral losses analysts suggest. It currently has 24 seats but polling for Maariv predicted this could shrink to just 11, marking the end of the ‘left’ as a mainstream political force in Israel.
Elections were precipitated by Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday, accusing the government of capitulating to terrorists by agreeing a ceasefire with Hamas after a barrage of 460 rockets in two days, which in turn was triggered by an Israeli Special Forces raid in Gaza that killed a Hamas commander and six others.
If the government dissolves following Bennett’s withdrawal, there is likely to be a two- or three-month campaign, with the focus again on security, which has traditionally been safe ground for Netanyahu.
But analysts say Bennett and Lieberman will seize on Israeli discontent following the latest flare-up, which saw the sheer number of rockets fired from Gaza overwhelm the Iron Dome missile defence system, resulting in houses being hit and up to 50 Israelis treated for injuries or trauma.