Israeli parliamentary factions on Wednesday set early elections for March 17 as snap polls suggested that those elections might result in the most conservative government in Israel’s history.
In a preliminary vote, legislators approved the dissolution of Parliament, paving the way for the elections two years ahead of schedule.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who set the elections in motion by firing two centrist ministers from his fractious government Tuesday, would be well positioned to put together a parliamentary majority with nationalist and ultra-Orthodox religious parties to cement his fourth term in office, polls published Tuesday and Wednesday suggested.
If elections were held now, the polls found, Netanyahu’s Likud Party would emerge as the largest faction in the 120-member Parliament, with the ultranationalist Jewish Home party in second place.
Netanyahu was rated far ahead of other party leaders as the most qualified candidate for prime minister, according to one poll, reflecting a prevalent sense that there’s no competent alternative.
He precipitated the elections by ousting Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, two centrists who’d sparred with him on a wide range of issues, from government defense spending to settlement construction in the West Bank and predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
Commentators said defeating Netanyahu would depend on whether centrist and leftist parties could form a joint slate and win enough parliamentary seats to form a governing coalition.
“This is the story: Will Netanyahu retain his status as the only politician able to put together a coalition, as he has done in two previous elections, or will his rivals succeed this time in joining forces against him and leave him outside,” Aluf Benn, the editor of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, wrote in a column Wednesday.
Much depends on a large floating vote in the center, which in previous elections made its choices just days before going to the polls, said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Most likely there will be a majority for the right, but the volatility of voting patterns in Israel is so great that the results are ultimately unpredictable,” Rahat said.
Netanyahu, whose Likud Party won 18 seats in the last election – compelling him to join forces with feuding coalition partners from the right and center – appealed to voters Wednesday to give his party a broad mandate to lead the next government.
“Whoever wants to give a clear mandate to lead the country to a prime minister from Likud needs to give many seats to Likud,” Netanyahu said. “This is the main lesson from our experience of the last years, and that is the challenge of this election campaign.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Lapid said Netanyahu was out of touch with the Israeli public, had harmed the country’s relations with the United States and would lose the elections.
“He made a mistake, and the price of that mistake is that he will no longer be prime minister,” Lapid said.