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Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Sebastian Scheiner/Getty Images
Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Sebastian Scheiner/Getty Images

Jerusalem — Israel moved closer on Wednesday to its fifth election in less than four years after MPs gave an initial nod to dissolve parliament.

The possibility of a comeback by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already dominating the campaign.

The Knesset voted unanimously for a snap election in a preliminary reading of a bill expected to be finalised next week, after which centrist foreign minister Yair Lapid, 58, will take over from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as head of a caretaker government.

Lapid and Bennett ended Netanyahu’s record reign a year ago by forming a rare alliance of rightists, liberals and Arab parties, which faltered in past months amid infighting. The designated interim prime minister cast the coming election as a battle between moderates and Netanyahu-embraced extremists.

Netanyahu, now opposition leader, is delighted by the disbanding of what he has called the worst government in Israel’s history. He hopes to win a sixth term in office.

Four surveys published on Tuesday found Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and its likely allied nationalist and ultrareligious parties as leading the polls, but still short of a governing majority in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.

Their rivals across the political spectrum have vowed to stop a return to power by Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies.

Coalition MPs are already pushing legislation to bar a person under criminal indictment from heading a government, though it is unclear whether they have enough votes.

“Netanyahu knows if Israel remains a liberal democracy that he will not be able to cancel his trial,” Lapid said at an economic conference in Jerusalem.

“Our mission is to ensure these people don’t take power and not to let them crush Israel’s democracy.”

But Bennett said he would vote against such a bill, and leave it to voters to decide if Netanyahu is fit for office. “I’m confident they will make the right choice,” he tweeted.

Netanyahu, 72, who has cast his trial as a leftist witch-hunt, has said his rivals will lean on Muslim Arab MPs, who he has called “supporters of terrorism”.

“Only a strong national government headed by Netanyahu will put Israel back on a right-wing course,” Likud said in response to Lapid’s remarks.

The election date, any time from late September to early November, will be decided next week.

MPs in Netanyahu’s camp have called for a new government to be formed under his leadership before the final election law is passed, though that seems unlikely.



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