By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Ministers in Israel’s outgoing government vowed on Tuesday to prevent a comeback by ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, their fellow right winger, as the country braced for a fifth election in less than four years with polling predicting no clear winner.
Sapped by infighting that ended his razor-thin parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday announced he would move to dissolve the Knesset, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid assuming top office in a caretaker capacity.
A preliminary vote on that motion is set for Wednesday with final legislation continuing next week.
The prospect of an election as early as October – delighted Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader who was toppled a year ago after Bennett mustered a rare coalition of hard-right, liberal and Arab politicians.
“Something great happened here,” Netanyahu declared on Monday, saying that his conservative Likud party would lead the next government.
Surveys have consistently given Likud around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats – which would make it the biggest party but would require Netanyahu to sign up like-minded allies, including among current partners in Bennett’s coalition.
Two of those – Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Justice Minister Gideon Saar – ruled out joining forces with Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies.
“I won’t be bringing Bibi (Netanyahu) back. All of the party members are with me. No one will succumb to inducements (to defect to Likud),” Saar told Army Radio.
Lieberman said that he backs legislation, already being pushed by coalition lawmakers, that would prevent anyone under criminal indictment from heading a government. It is unclear whether the bill has enough cabinet or parliament support.
“The main object in the upcoming election is to prevent Netanyahu from returning to power,” Lieberman said at an Israel Democracy Institute conference in Jerusalem.
In his last two years in office, Netanyahu’s legal woes denied him the solid right-wing coalition he sought through four elections.
A poll aired by Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM on Tuesday found Netanyahu and rightist or ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies would command 59 parliament seats, versus 55 predicted for parties in the current coalition. An Arab party not expected to back either bloc got six seats.
The eventual political map could change, however, if smaller parties disappear or join forces – or if Netanyahu or Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party is polling in second place, manage to reach across to less-likely partners.
The election announcement had no immediate impact on financial markets, which are used to Israeli political uncertainty. The main indexes on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange were slightly up and the shekel was stronger against the dollar.
Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron said that he expected further economic growth despite the upheaval.
For the Palestinians, the latest Israeli political developments were inconsequential.
“No matter how weak, strong or transitional the status of the Israeli government or ruling coalition, the occupying state imposes on the Palestinian people, through its violations and crimes, a heavy cost,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said.
(Additional reporting by Henriette Chacar, Maayan Lubell, Steven Scheer and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)