JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition announced Monday that early elections will be held in April, sending the Israeli leader back to face the voters at a time when he is confronting mounting criticism over his handling of security and under investigation for bribery.
While Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition had been on the brink of collapse since his defense minister quit last month, it was a dispute over legislation aimed at drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military that ultimately brought down the government.
Most political analysts predict that Netanyahu will be reelected. There are no significant challengers in his Likud party or coalition, and leading opposition figures are considered too weak to unseat him. The main question is whether, after the election, he will be forced to strike a more centrist coalition to assemble a majority in parliament.
A vote is scheduled for Wednesday to dissolve the parliament, known as the Knesset. If dissolution is supported by more than half the members, a national election will take place April 9. A full term would have taken the government through to November 2019.
Elections will be held amid growing concern here over the threat posed along Israel’s northern border by Iran and its militia ally Hezbollah, especially after the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, where they have helped contain Iranian influence.
Even as Israeli officials have pointed to this escalating danger, Netanyahu has been sharply criticized in recent months for his handling of other security challenges, notably the conflict with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu was widely faulted, including by former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, for reaching a temporary truce with the group this fall without a long-term solution for stemming rocket and other attacks from Gaza. The prime minister has also been criticized for failing to stop a spike in violent attacks against Israelis in the West Bank.
At the same time, the Israeli news media has intently covered corruption investigations into Netanyahu focusing on allegations that he accepted favors and gifts from several wealthy benefactors and business executives and made deals for more favorable coverage.
The Israeli police have recommended indicting him in three cases, and it is up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to build a case that can stand up in court. Netanyahu has vowed to remain prime minister even if an indictment is filed against him.
Netanyahu’s party said in a statement that “national and budgetary responsibilities” have pushed the leaders of the coalition parties to “dissolve the Knesset and go to new elections at the beginning of April.”
Speaking in the Knesset, Netanyahu said his government has successfully completed four full years in office, with “tremendous achievements in every field.”
“We come to ask for a clear mandate from the voters to continue to lead the state of Israel our way,” he said. “This way we have done a great deal for the citizens of Israel, and this way we will go on to do a great deal for the state of Israel.”
The decision Monday to disband the government appeared to be directly linked to an announcement from Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party and Netanyahu’s main challenger, that his faction would not support legislation aimed at drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army.
While all Jewish Israelis are required to serve in the military at age 18, those who study the Torah in recognized yeshivas, or religious schools, have traditionally received an exemption. However, manpower shortages in recent years and growing demands for equality have forced the government to reevaluate the matter and craft new legislation that would exempt only the top religious students — a move that the ultra-Orthodox have resisted.
Drafting a law to satisfy all members of Netanyahu’s coalition has proved to be a source of tension over the past year, threatening to break apart the government on several occasions.
From the outside, Lapid, who has pushed for new legislation, said the law did not go far enough. He suggested that Netanyahu had “surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox.”
Liberman, who Netanyahu’s coalition had hoped would support the law despite his resignation last month, said the law in its current format had been “emptied of content” after agreements were reached between Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Following the announcement of an election in April, Liberman said it was time to form a new government.
“We have already said for a whole month that this is a survival government and not a functioning government, and therefore for the people of Israel, it is most important that a new and stable government be established,” he told journalists. He also said he would rejoin a future coalition only if the issues surrounding the draft law were resolved.
Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that although Netanyahu appeared to be caught in a weak position, his run for a fourth term as Israeli leader would go more or less unchallenged, both from within his ruling party and from outside.
“To say he is weaker going in does not mean he will be weaker going out,” Hazan said. “He’s an amazing campaigner. When it comes to campaigning, this is his forte.”
The main challenge Netanyahu faces now is how he will form the next coalition, especially if Mandelblit decides to formally charge the prime minister.
The Israeli police have recommended indicting Netanyahu in three cases. Case 100 involves allegations that he received gifts of cigars and jewelry from billionaire benefactors. Case 200 involves alleged illicit deals between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. And in Case 400, Netanyahu is accused of easing business regulations for the country’s largest telecommunications company in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his wife on a popular news website owned by the firm.
In a statement after Monday’s election announcement, the Justice Ministry said investigations involving the prime minister would continue as planned.
“Netanyahu must have realized this is a serious threat, and the last thing he needs, in the midst of an election campaign, is for the attorney general to prosecute him,” said Hazan. “He wants to preempt this, win, and then he can say, ‘Before you decide to prosecute me, take note that the people of Israel have reelected me for a fourth time with more seats than ever before, and you cannot overturn the results of a democratic election.’ ”