EXPLAIN: Why is Israel still holding elections?

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JERUSALEM (TUSEN) — After just 12 months in power, leaders of Israel’s broad-based but badly weakened coalition government threw in the towel this week, saying they would dissolve parliament and hold new elections — the fifth in 3 and a half years.

Why does this keep happening?

The simplest answer is that Israel is deeply – and almost evenly – divided over whether Benjamin Netanyahu should be prime minister. But it’s also because Israel’s political system is made up of an ideologically diverse array of parties that must form alliances – and sometimes break them – to get what they want.

Here’s a look at how Israel got to this point and what comes next.

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MULTIPARTY POLICY

Israelis vote by party, and in the country’s 74-year history no faction has won a majority in the 120-member parliament, known as the Knesset. Thus, after each election, any candidate for the post of Prime Minister must form alliances in order to concoct a majority of at least 61 seats.

This gives small parties inordinate power. After nearly every election, attention focuses on one or more potential kingmakers and their particular demands. Thirteen parties were elected to parliament, for example, in last year’s elections. This can lead to weeks of negotiations and haggling between different party leaders.

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If no one can muster a majority, as happened after the April and September 2019 elections, the country returns to the polls and the government remains in place as a gatekeeper.

Still, it shouldn’t be that difficult. Nationalist and religious parties have won the majority of Knesset seats in each of the last four elections, if only they could get along.

This is where Netanyahu comes in.

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LOVE IT OR HATE IT

To his right-wing and religious supporters, Netanyahu is the ‘King of Israel’ – a ruthless nationalist and veteran statesman who can take on world leaders from Russian Vladimir Putin to US President Joe Biden, guiding Israel through its myriad security challenges.

To his opponents, including the leaders of the outgoing coalition, he is at best a crook and at worst a threat to democracy. They point to his ongoing corruption trial, his domineering style and his habit of stoking internal divisions for political gain.

Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and his party, Likud, came first or just second in all four elections. But he was never able to form a right-wing majority because some of his ideological allies – including former aides – refuse to associate with him.

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Take Avigdor Lieberman, for example. The West Bank settler who leads a right-wing party and was long known for his fiery anti-Arab rhetoric would seem an obvious ally. But he broke with Netanyahu in 2019 and refuses to sit in any government with him or his ultra-Orthodox allies.

Lieberman even champions a bill that would bar anyone charged with criminal charges from becoming prime minister — an attempt to end Netanyahu’s political career.

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A DIFFICULT COALITION

Last year, after Election No. 4, Netanyahu’s opponents managed to overthrow him.

Naftali Bennett – another former right-wing Netanyahu ally – and centrist Yair Lapid have cobbled together a coalition of eight political parties from across the ideological spectrum – from right-wing nationalists to supporters of a Palestinian state, including a small Arab Islamist party .

The factions put aside their ideological differences and worked together, for a time. The government passed a budget, weathered two waves of coronavirus without imposing lockdowns, improved diplomatic relations with Arab and Muslim countries, and averted war. Bennett, as prime minister, even dabbled in mediating between Russia and Ukraine.

But from the start, the government had the narrowest of majorities, and Netanyahu exerted enormous pressure on its right-wing members, accusing them of associating with terrorists and betraying their constituents. Several right-wing members of the coalition have received death threats, including Bennett.

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In the end, many gave in and Bennett’s Yamina party all but collapsed. The government lost its majority in April. This month, he failed to pass a law granting special legal status to Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, something most Israelis consider essential.

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NEW ELECTION, SAME DIVISION

Israelis are now set to return to the polls as early as October, where they wearily face a familiar choice.

Netanyahu is hoping for a comeback, and Likud and its allies should win more votes than they did last time around. Some of his right-wing opponents, weakened by their association with the coalition, could lose all or part of their seats.

But it’s far too early for any reliable poll, and even if Netanyahu and his allies get more seats, they could yet again run out of a majority.

If that happened, it would be up to many of the same parties that formed the outgoing government to cobble together a new coalition, which would face the same stressors as the previous one.

What if neither side has enough support to form a government?

You guessed it: New elections.

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