JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing the possibility of having to fight a second election this year, as he struggles to form a coalition government. With a looming deadline, Israel's newly elected parliament began drafting a bill on Monday to dissolve itself.
If the bill passes, Israel would be in unchartered waters — sending the political system into disarray with a second snap election in just a matter of months.
Netanyahu appeared to have a clear path to a majority coalition, and fifth term in office overall, after the April 9 elections. His Likud party secured 35 seats, tying it for the largest party in the highly fractured 120-seat parliament. Counting his traditional allies, Netanyahu appeared to control a solid 65-55 majority.
But his prospective coalition has been thrown into crisis in recent days by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ally and sometimes rival of Netanyahu's. Lieberman has insisted on passing a new law mandating that young ultra-Orthodox men be drafted into the military, like most other Jewish males. Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox allies demand that the exemptions remain in place.
Without the five seats of Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, Netanyahu cannot muster a majority.
"The draft law has become a symbol and we will not capitulate on our symbols," Lieberman said at a combative press conference, vowing to press for new elections if his demands are not met.
Netanyahu's ruling Likud has traditionally had an alliance with ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties. But Lieberman, a former top Netanyahu aide, is a wild card. Though stanchly nationalist, he also champions a secular agenda aimed toward his political base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Likud insists Lieberman is motivated by his personal spite for Netanyahu and has launched a vicious campaign against him in recent days. But Lieberman says he is driven by ideology and will not be a hand to religious coercion.
"I will not be a partner to a Halachic state," he said, referring to Jewish law.
Ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will lead to immersion in secularism. But years of exemptions have generated widespread resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis.
A stalemate on the issue was one of the factors that shortened the term of the previous coalition government, which Lieberman resigned from months before elections were called because he disagreed with its policy toward the Gaza Strip.
Dissolving parliament would be a shocking turn of events for Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past decade and appeared to capture a fourth consecutive term in the April election. "We invite Lieberman to join us today and not contribute to the toppling of a right-wing government," a statement by Likud read.
With the 42-day timeline allotted to Netanyahu to sign agreements with his partners and present his new government set to expire late Wednesday, his Likud presented the paperwork to dissolve the parliament. The bill appeared to have a majority but could be pulled at any moment if a compromise is found.
The main opposition party, Blue and White, which also controls 35 seats, appealed for a chance to form a coalition. But a parliamentary vote for dissolution would automatically trigger new elections. Blue and White has ruled out any alliance with Netanyahu.
If the vote passes, it would mark the first time the scenario had played out in Israel and set the stage for an unprecedented second election in the same calendar year.
Polls indicate the results of a new election would not be much different from the last one.