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With the Knesset set to disband on Wednesday, what happens next?

With the ideological ties that bound Israel’s big-tent coalition having frayed, the 24th Knesset is set to dissolve itself by midnight on Wednesday, just over a year after being sworn in.

After that happens, three big changes will take place: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will succeed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as premier on Thursday; Israel will go to its fifth elections since 2019 in the fall; and the Knesset will largely cease to function, with the government shifting into caretaker status.

The political shake-up comes in the wake of Bennett and Lapid’s dramatic June 20 announcement that they would draw the curtains on their own government. Since losing its one-seat parliamentary majority in April, the shaky coalition had been unable to stabilize.

Bennett said on Saturday that the imminent threat of a successful opposition-led bid to disperse the Knesset, coupled with the June 30 deadline for averting a potentially chaotic legal situation for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, was the immediate catalyst for his decision to close up shop.

While the coalition hopes to finalize the Knesset’s dispersal by Wednesday evening, it still has several outstanding arguments with the opposition. Most significantly, the sides are bickering over when to schedule the elections, with their preferred dates one week apart.

  • The right-religious opposition bloc is pushing for October 25, hoping for better turnout and on-the-ground manpower because it’s a day before religious schools reopen after the Jewish holiday season.
  • Coalition parties and the opposition’s majority-Arab Joint List party prefer November 1, which would both deny the right its perceived boost and allow interim prime minister Lapid another week in power.

Held up as hostages in the election date debate are several pieces of legislation. Two of the most important are a bill necessary to launch reforms to allow Israel to make progress toward joining the United States’ Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to enter the US sans visa, and another to enable moving forward with a massive underground metro project to serve Tel Aviv and its environs.

So what happens next?

What does it mean that Lapid will be prime minister?

Although originally slated to rotate into the Prime Minister’s Office in August of 2023, Lapid will ascend to the premiership automatically on midnight of the day during which the Knesset disbands.

As alternate prime minister, Lapid already took his oath of office for the premiership in June 2021, alongside Bennett.

  • Bennett, who will set a record as Israel’s shortest-serving non-interim prime minister, will step aside and become alternate prime minister. He will also continue to hold responsibility for the country’s Iran policy.

Much of the governmental infrastructure will remain in place. While Lapid will bring his staff with him into the Prime Minister’s Office and most will slot into parallel positions there, he is expected to maintain continuity among top professional advisers.

  • Specifically, Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo, Military Secretary Avi Gil, and National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata will stay onboard.

As caretaker prime minister, Lapid will be constrained in his ability to push a new agenda, and without the Knesset, he will not be advancing legislation, except in narrow, special circumstances.

  • That said, Lapid will be caretaker prime minister for at least four months, and possibly much longer, should post-election coalition formation prove protracted or impossible.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the interim title intermittently in the two years between 2019 and 2021, when Israel cycled through four elections.

Only entering politics a decade ago, the centrist former TV anchor will be the first non-right-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak left office in 2001, and one of the few without significant military experience.

Lapid has not only spoken extensively about equality and tolerance within Israeli society, but has also made steps toward putting his ideas into practice as the architect of the now-doomed big tent coalition.

As the hawkish former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who was once Lapid’s political partner, said Wednesday morning, Lapid has built a reputation for his willingness to cooperate and learn from others.

“He learns, he shares, he consults on things he understands less,” Ya’alon told Army Radio.

One of the lessons he’s learned relates to the brouhaha surrounding predecessor Bennett’s place of residence. Unlike Bennett, Lapid plans to move to an official residence in Jerusalem; though since Beit Aghion, the formal residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, is still awaiting renovation, he will be moving into a two-bedroom apartment down the street, in a building formerly used by Netanyahu’s security detail.

What to expect during the election period

Although the election date will only be set alongside the Knesset’s finalized dispersal on Wednesday evening, it is expected to be either October 25 or November 1. By Israeli law, it must be a Tuesday and is granted as a national holiday with paid time off from work.

Elections will happen in two major phases.

  • First, parties that hold primaries will conduct them before submitting their candidate slates, which must happen no later than 47 days prior to elections. This means either September 8 or 15, depending on the general election date.

While none of the parties has announced a formal date for primaries, Likud, Meretz, and Labor are expected to hold them. Many of the parties split their leadership primary from primaries for the rest of their slates. Labor has announced a leadership primary for July 18, although it’s unclear if there is a candidate emerging to challenge Merav Michaeli.

The rest of the parties set their lists internally, without party member input.

  • In the second phase, after party slates are set, campaigns are expected to accelerate. Israeli voters do not vote for individual candidates in national elections, but rather parties. Knesset members are allocated based on their spot on their party slate and each party is apportioned members based on their results in a nation-wide, single-district vote. A party must clear the Knesset threshold — currently set at 3.25% of votes cast nationwide — to be eligible for seats.

What happens in the Knesset?

After the bill to disband the Knesset passes its third and final reading with the support of 61 MKs, the Knesset immediately disbands.

Thrice-weekly plenum sessions, during which lawmakers vote on legislation, are generally canceled. The plenum can be convened for special sessions, if a majority of lawmakers press for it.

  • Committees staffed by MKs may continue to meet to wrap up their work or deal with pressing issues, but in general they also wind down.

However, MKs retain their positions until the next Knesset is sworn in.

  • While MKs shift from legislating to campaigning, the government remains in place to run the public sector apparatus. Ministers continue to lead their ministries and the security services, separate from politics, function as normal.

Source: Carrie Keller-Lynn – TOI