The ruling coalition of political parties in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, has collapsed: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed two leaders of major centrist parties from their ministerial positions and announced elections this spring in order to determine a new government.
The timing is a big surprise — but that fact that Israel's government has fallen apart isn't. Netanyahu's coalition was riven by a deep, fundamental contradiction between its hard-right and centrist members. The two blocs have irreconcilably different views of Israeli society: no possible government could have kept them both happy forever. The big question now is whose vision wins in the next election.
The coalition fell apart when Netanyahu fired his Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, and Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni. Lapid is the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which holds the single largest number of seats of any party in the Knesset. Livni heads Hatnua, a smaller centrist party.
Without these parties, Netanyahu's government no longer has majority support in the Knesset. So he needed either to add new parties to his coalition or call a new election. Netanyahu chose the latter.
According to Brent Sasley, a professor at UT-Arlington who focuses on Israeli politics, Netanyahu will technically serve as Finance and Justice Ministers, in addition to Prime Minister, until the next election. He could also appoint others to those roles. But "it probably won't matter much," Sasley says, because "not much will get done policy-wise" until after the vote.
Netanyahu's public reason for firing Livni and Lapid is that he couldn't take their criticism of his government anymore. He has a point — Livni and Lapid had recently been blasting the government's new bill formally declaring Israel "the national state of the Jewish people." Livni and Lapid saw the bill as unacceptably corrosive of Israeli democracy, while the right saw it is as a necessary step for ensuring Israel's Jewish status.
But in other ways, the public criticism line is a smokescreen — Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners have also been vocally critical of him. Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, and Avigdor Lieberman, head of the conservative Yisrael Beiteinu, very publicly blasted the prime minister's handling of this summer's Gaza war.
The reason that Livni and Lapid, rather than Bennett and Lieberman, are being dismissed is simple enough: Netanyahu is a right-wing prime minister leading the right-wing Likud party in a dominantly right-wing coalition. Together, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Jewish Home control almost twice as many seats as Yesh Atid and Hatnua.
This put Lapid and Livni's parties in a bizarre situation. On the one hand, Netanyahu needed to please them, because his government couldn't achieve a governing majority without their support. On the other hand, the right-wing parties had them so outnumbered that they had huge trouble getting their way on issues like West Bank settlements, taxes, or minority rights. Lapid and Livni ended up, in practice, being centrist fig leaves for a hardline right-wing government.
Viewed in that light, it wasn't a question of whether this inherently unstable government would collapse: it was a question of when. It turns out the answer was 18 months after forming.
So what happens now? Elections need to be scheduled, so we've got months of campaigning ahead of us. As of right now, the polling almost universally suggests a big win for the right-wing parties: Likud and Jewish Home (Habeyit Hayehudi) are in particularly strong positions to gain seats. Labor and Meretz, the traditional left, do okay in polls, while both Lapid's Yesh Atid and Livni's Hatnua would take hits relative to what they have now:
Poll summary thus far - more coming this evening on @Channel2News & @channel10 #Israelex via @haaretzcom| pic.twitter.com/PsaogUrc0I— Natan Sachs (@natansachs) December 2, 2014
The polling helps explain why Netanyahu would be willing to risk new elections now. But there are wildcards. For one, Israeli polls can be unreliable, especially this far out from elections. For another, former Likud Knesset member Moshe Kahlon's new party is gaining a fair amount of support. Kahlon is a centrist focused on economic issues; Israelis often vote for flash-in-the-pan centrist parties in surprisingly high numbers.
So while the smart money is on Israel's center-right government being replaced by a more consistently right-wing coalition, there's a real chance that everyone will end up being surprised. The only thing that's clear now is that the old government is well and truly dead.