Israel is heading for an unprecedented third election within a year after a deadline to create a coalition government ran out at midnight local time on Wednesday and parliament was dissolved.
The prospect of a new election prolongs a political stalemate that has paralysed the government and undermined many citizens' faith in the democratic process.
Initial elections in April were inconclusive and a September re-run of the vote left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief challenger Benny Gantz short of securing the required parliamentary majority to form a government.
Israel’s proportional system is reliant on coalition-building, and both parties have fallen well short of the 61 seats needed to command a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Both men were then given 28-day periods to try to forge a workable coalition but failed, unwilling to compromise on their core demands to strike a power-sharing agreement. The stalemate has forced President Reuven Rivlin to turn to parliament with his deadline on Wednesday.
Netanyahu's recent indictment on corruption charges has added a legal imbroglio to the saga. The prime minister – who has been in power continuously since 2009 after also serving as premier in the late 1990s – was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust last month in a case he has dismissed as politically motivated.
The Knesset on Wednesday morning passed a preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve itself, setting a new election for March 2. The bill needed to be voted on three times before midnight local time or else the election will be automatically set for March 10.
Expensive election saga
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have insisted for weeks that they wanted to avoid another costly election campaign that could be expected to produce similar results. And given Israel's divided state and the deep mistrust between the opposing camps, there is no guarantee that another vote will break the cycle of elections and instability that has hindered the country for the past year.
Another campaign, and the national holiday of Election Day, will cost the Israeli economy billions.
But there will be an even steeper price paid for the nearly 18 months of caretaker governments that cannot carry out major legislation, make appointments or pass budgets, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.
“The entire decision-making apparatus has been stalled and that has ample implications across the board,” he told AP. “Israelis are frustrated as a result of the fact that there is no decisive outcome. But there is also an understanding that we are in a very unique and unprecedented situation where a prime minister who is very popular within his own constituency is also being indicted with very severe crimes.”
Israel's longest-serving leader is desperately clinging to power, hoping to wage his legal battle from the favourable perch of prime minister. He has insisted on going first in any alternating leadership arrangement and has refused to drop his alliance with other nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
To shore up his support base, Netanyahu has pushed his plan to annex a strategic part of the occupied West Bank as well as signing a defence treaty with the United States. He is a close ally of US President Donald Trump, who has taken a number of controversial steps in support of Netanyahu’s agenda, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
The most straightforward way out of the stalemate would have been for Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party to form a unity government with Netanyahu's Likud, but the party refused to sit down with Netanyahu. As a condition of coalition talks, Gantz had demanded that Netanyahu publicly declare that he would not seek parliamentary immunity from the charges against him.
“It now seems that we will be going into a third election cycle today because of Netanyahu’s attempt to obtain immunity,” Gantz told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We must stand in opposition to this.”
Internal challenger to Netanyahu
Gantz said he would agree to make a deal with a different leader of Likud. But Netanyahu managed to fend off a burgeoning insurrection inside his party with just one major figure, Gideon Saar, openly daring to challenge him.
“If I am elected head of Likud, I will lead it to victory,” Saar announced Tuesday, citing polls that showed he would be more likely to build a stable coalition. “It is very clear, on the other hand, that if we keep the current course we will not get anywhere better than we have in the last two elections."
With all the other top Likud officials lining up behind him, Netanyahu is expected to beat Saar in any primary vote. Likud announced Wednesday that it would hold its leadership vote on December 26.
Netanyahu is not legally compelled to step down after being indicted, but Israeli law is fuzzy about whether he could be given authority to form a new government after another vote.
Recent opinion polls have forecast continuing deadlock if new elections are held.
Hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally, has emerged as a stubborn kingmaker, refusing to endorse either candidate while failing to coax them into a unity government.
The maverick politician, who takes a hard line against the Palestinians, has earned some newfound support in liberal circles by also taking a tough stand against ultra-Orthodox parties that hold great influence in Netanyahu's governments. But he has also taken lots of heat for the extended impasse.
“Voting for Lieberman is a sure path to a fourth election," wrote Matti Tuchfeld in the "Israel Hayom" daily. “Lieberman has turned into a one-man blocking majority. You can like him, agree with his opinions, you can love his zig-zagging. No problem. But you have to know that a vote for him is a vote for continuing the political vacuum and a perpetual transitional government.”
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)