The Knesset on Wednesday afternoon approved the preliminary vote on a bill to dissolve itself, threatening to plunge Israel into its fourth election in less than two years.
The bill, which passed by 61 votes to 54, requires three additional successful readings in the Knesset before it passes and new elections must be called, giving coalition leaders a chance to resolve their differences that for now are centered around the state budget.
After the vote, the bill was sent to the Knesset House Committee for deliberation. It will then be presented again in the Knesset for the first full vote, after which it will go back to the House Committee in the coming weeks before its second and third plenum votes.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday made a bombshell announcement that his Blue & White party would vote in favor of the bill. He accused his coalition partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of consistently misleading the public over a budget row to serve his own political ends.
The unity government has sparred over the structure of the state budget with Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners willing to vote only on a very short term version of the 2020 budget, contrary to the coalition agreement that calls for a two-year budget that includes 2021.
If the long-term budget is passed, Netanyahu would no longer have the 2021 budget as a trump card and would be forced to commit to the rotation agreement that would mean Gantz taking over as prime minister next year.
But if the government collapses because a budget has not been passed, Netanyahu would remain as prime minister throughout the three-month election campaign and until a new coalition is formed.
While a motion to dissolve the Knesset proposed by the opposition would normally be voted down automatically by members of the coalition, Blue & White's continued support means it is all but assured to win final approval.
Members of MK Mansour Abbas' Ra'am party, recently allied with the prime minister on various shared interests, skipped the vote. Ra'am is part of the Joint List political alliance, which is currently in opposition. The remainder of the Joint List faction voted in favor of dissolving parliament.
Speaking shortly before entering the Knesset plenum for the vote, Gantz made sure to leave a lifeline for Netanyahu to avoid elections - by approving a two-year state budget as was agreed upon in the coalition deal signed in May.
"If Netanyahu approves the budget, everything will work out," Gantz said. "Anything that prevents elections is a welcome thing. The best solution is for this budget to be passed and for this government to continue to function."
Gantz's former ally turned critic, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, presented the bill in the plenum.
"There is an adult [in charge] but he is not responsible," Lapid said at the onset of the debate. "Whenever there is a problem he throws the responsibility onto someone else. You have left too many of us behind, desperate and alone."
He added the legislation "is not here today as another round of 'just not Bibi'. It is here because it is time to stop the anger, hatred and mismanagement and as long as he is there, it will not stop."
It is unlikely, however, that Netanyahu will be willing to compromise, and his allies have already announced the election campaign has begun as they consider possible dates to hold the national vote.
Those close to the prime minister said the accusations made by Gantz left no recourse but to end the dysfunctional coalition government formed in May after the March 2020 election.
Netanyahu would also benefit by further delaying the budget talks. That would give more time for the coronavirus vaccine to arrive and the economy to begin recovering next year, presumably giving him a better chance in elections.
Opinion polls predict that Netanyahu's Likud Party would still emerge as the largest party in parliament in the next election, but with far fewer seats than it currently has. Gantz's Blue & White has plummeted even further, making it in both their interests to compromise and avoid a new election.
AFP, Associated Press contributed to this report
First published: 14:10, 12.02.20