Behind the Dissolution of the Knesset

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The 24th Knesset is about to dissolve itself. What majority is required to pass a law to dissolve the Knesset on the various readings? After the Knesset is dissolved, how do it and the Government function? What do things look like right now?

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Can the Knesset dissolve itself and call early elections?

Absolutely—by passing a law to dissolve the Knesset. This method is enshrined in §34 of the Basic Law: The Knesset: “The Knesset shall not decide to dissolve itself before the expiration of its term of office, unless by passing a law for that purpose by a majority of members.”

What conditions are required for the passage of such a law?

First of all, this is a law in all respects. As such, it must be submitted to the Knesset as an individual MK's or Government bill and go through the standard stages of all legislation—three readings in the plenum (and, in the case of an individual MK's bill, a preliminary reading, when only a majority of those voting is required for passage), as well as discussion and approval by the House Committee.

Second, at least 61 MKs must support the bill on the third reading.

If a law to dissolve the Knesset is passed, when are elections held?

The date for the new election is specified in the law itself, and cannot be more than five months after its passage. According to the law that is currently being discussed by the Knesset, this date will be November 1. 

What happens to the Knesset’s work after such a law is enacted?

Under the principle of continuity (§37 of the Basic Law: The Knesset), the Knesset remains in office until the first session of the next Knesset and is not bound by any special restrictions. For example, it may continue to pass laws (the Direct Election Law was enacted in 1992 after the Twelfth Knesset had already been dissolved through a dissolution law). Usually, a small "Agreement Committee" is established, with a representative of the coalition and a representative of the opposition, and the committee jointly decided which law to promote before elections.

Nevertheless, the legislature was aware of the problematic nature of the Knesset’s continuing to conduct business as usual after its dissolution, and stipulated that laws due to expire at the end of the current Knesset’s term or in the first months of the new Knesset, such as ad hoc provisions, will expire only after the first three months of the term of the incoming Knesset (§38 of the Basic Law: The Knesset).

What is the status of the Government’s activity after a dissolution law is passed?

Under the principle of Government continuity (§30b of the Basic Law: The Government), the outgoing Government continues to serve until a new Government is formed.

It is generally referred to as a “caretaker government,” but this term does not appear in the law. In the Basic Law; the Government, the term which appears is “the outgoing government” and this term applies not to the entire period after the passage of the law dissolving the Knesset, but only to the period from the election of the new Knesset (or after the resignation of the Prime Minister—but this is not the case being discussed here).

On the surface, the law imposes no limits on the authority of a caretaker government and instead, emphasizes the need to avoid a governance vacuum. In one area, a caretaker government actually has more power than a regular government: the moment the law defines it as an “outgoing government,” that is, after the election of the new Knesset, it can appoint a minister to replace one who has resigned/was fired or passed away, without approval by the Knesset (which a regular government requires).

However, rulings by the High Court of Justice and directives issued by the Attorney General over the years have placed various limits on caretaker governments. In general, the range of what is deemed “reasonable” for such governments is narrower and the government and its ministers must act with restraint, unless there is a vital need for action. There are specific limits on senior appointments during an election period and on “election economics,” which refers to transferring funds and making promises to do so while the campaign is in progress (Attorney General’s Directives 1.1501 and 1.1904).

Can the Prime Minister and other ministers be replaced after a law to dissolve the Knesset is passed?

In principle, the law does not modify the status of the Prime Minister and other ministers.

The present Government, however, is a “rotation government.” §41(a)(1) of the Basic Law: The Government stipulates that if a law for the early dissolution of the Knesset passes its third reading with the support of at least two MKs whose parliamentary factions are (or were, when the government was formed) affiliated with the Prime Minister's bloc within the government (that is, not with the Alternative Prime Minister's bloc) (who expressed confidence in the Government when it was formed), the Alternate Prime Minister attains the status of Prime Minister on the following day. This means that if at least two MKs from Yamina or Tikvah Hadashah (other than Chikli, who is not relevant for this purpose) vote to dissolve the Knesset and the law passes, Yair Lapid will become Prime Minister on the following day, and Naftali Bennett will be demoted to Alternate Prime Minister. The obvious candidates to vote to dissolve the Knesset and "enthrone" Lapid are MKs Idit Silman and Nir Orbach of Yamina.

As for ministers, there would not be any automatic changes. However, we should bear in mind that under the coalition agreement the rotation between Bennett and Lapid, scheduled to take place in August 2023, is also supposed to involve a reshuffling of the portfolios, with Gideon Sa’ar moving to the Foreign Ministry to replace Lapid, Ayelet Shaked taking Sa’ar’s spot in the Justice Ministry, and Naftali Bennett replacing her in the Interior Ministry. It is probably not going to happen: these changes require approval by the Government, but also need to be confirmed by the Knesset, which the coalition no longer controls.

What happens if the Knesset doesn’t pass the dissolution bill?

Under the Knesset bylaws (§76(h)), if a bill fails to pass, the same or a similar bill cannot be brought up for a vote during the ensuing six months (although the Speaker of the Knesset can decide to shorten that period under various circumstances).

What is the current situation?

• Many bills to dissolve the Knesset have been submitted by members of the opposition parties, including the Likud.
• If the bill comes up for a vote and fails to pass, another bill to dissolve the Knesset cannot be considered for the next six months (though, as stated, the Knesset speaker can allow this in various circumstances).
• If the bill passes on preliminary reading, it will be sent to the Knesset House Committee. Its progress will then be at the discretion of the committee’s chair—MK Nir Orbach of Yamina, who recently announced that he no longer sees himself as a member of the coalition. He can advance the bill quickly, or hold it back, or even "bury" it. (If the bill is held back too long, the opposition might petition the High Court to order the committee to deal with it.)
• If the House Committee approves the bill for its first reading in the plenum, and subsequently for second and third readings, 61 votes will be needed each time.

Has a law to dissolve the Knesset been a commonly used mechanism in Israel?

There have been 23 Knessets, and the elections were moved up in 17 cases. In 13 of them, this was accomplished by legislation. For example, the 20th Knesset—the last to serve nearly a full term, from 2015 to 2019—passed a law to dissolve itself. In the four other cases of early elections, other mechanisms were involved—dissolution of the Knesset by the Prime Minister, with the consent of the President (before the elections in 2003 and 2006), the inability to form a new government after a general election (2009), and the failure to pass the State Budget (2021).

Is this mechanism common in other democracies?

Certainly not. In most parliamentary democracies, the parliament cannot dissolve itself. The only two exceptions are Austria and Great Britain—although in the latter case this requires a two-thirds vote by the House of Commons.

Other mechanisms often used for dissolution of parliament are; exhausting the possibility of forming a Government, dissolution by the Prime Minister with the consent of the Head of State (both of these exist in Israel), and dissolution by the Head of State (a mechanism which does not exist in Israel).