Israel heads to Nov 1 election with Netanyahu waiting

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Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid attends Knesset session in Jerusalem

By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM – Israeli lawmakers voted on Thursday to dissolve parliament following the collapse of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s ruling coalition, opening the way for a Nov. 1 election that will be Israel’s fifth in less than four years.

Bennett will stand down at midnight to be replaced by his coalition partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who will lead the government during what is expected to be a bitter election battle with opposition leader and ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bennett, a former army commando and tech millionaire, will not run in the election. In a statement late on Wednesday, he said his government had left a “thriving, strong and secure country” and had shown that parties from different ends of the political spectrum could work together.

Netanyahu, ousted just over a year ago by Bennett’s unlikely coalition of parties from both the right and left as well as from Israel’s Arab minority, has vowed a return to power at the head of the right-wing Likud party.

“They promised change, they spoke of healing, they carried out an experiment – and the experiment failed,” he told parliament ahead of the vote. “That’s what happens when you take a fake-right along with a radical left, and mix it up with the Muslim Brotherhood and (Arab-led party) Joint List.”

The coalition lasted longer than many observers had predicted and its year in power saw strong economic growth, the budget deficit brought down and no occurrence of once-regular rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza.

But with a razor-thin majority and deep differences on questions from religion to the Palestinian issue, Bennett proved unable to keep his unlikely alliance together after several lawmakers walked out.

While opinion polls currently show Likud to be the strongest political party, they show no clear winner from the election, leaving Israel facing months of political uncertainty as economic and regional security problems mount.

U.S. President Joe Biden, due to visit next month, maintained strong relations with Bennett’s government which is unlikely to change when Lapid takes office.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is now aiming for another term despite facing corruption charges and, in the absence of major differences on security policy, has hammered away at the rising cost of living.

“Prices are rising because of this terrible government. We will bring it down and we will bring the prices down. That is my first mission,” Netanyahu said during a visit to a Jerusalem shopping mall, hours after the vote in the Knesset.

A poll aired on Israel’s Channel 12 TV on Wednesday forecast Netanyahu coming slightly ahead in the election with control of 58 of parliament’s 120 seats – still short of a majority. Parties in the current coalition were seen getting 56 seats, with another six seats going to an Arab party unlikely to join either side.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson and Jonathan Oatis)

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