Israel heads to polls again amid pandemic and PM's legal woes

Stephen WEIZMAN
·4-min read

Israel faces new political turmoil and a fourth election in less than two years after veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fractured ruling coalition failed to pass a budget bill early Wednesday.

His unhappy power-sharing deal with his former election rival, Defence Minister and Alternate PM Benny Gantz, struck in April, had been inching towards collapse for weeks, poisoned by mutual acrimony and mistrust.

It came to an end at midnight, forcing yet another unwanted election, on March 23, as Israel struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, and as Netanyahu faces a string of hearings in his corruption trial.

In the looming election battle, Netanyahu is likely to tout his main diplomatic achievements, a series of US-brokered normalisation deals with Arab states, but without the support of his close ally, US President Donald Trump, who will be replaced by Joe Biden on January 20.

The Knesset legislature was dissolved when the coalition headed by Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White party missed a midnight deadline to pass a 2020 budget.

It marked the messy breakup of the troubled political marriage between the men who had faced off in three inconclusive elections, in April and September 2019 and March 2020.

Given Israel's deep political divisions and the splintered electorate, it remains doubtful any single bloc or party will win a solid majority sufficient to form a stable government next time around.

"Israel's ongoing political crisis will continue as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister and a government cannot be formed without him," said Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute.

- Budget battle -

Gantz has said he never trusted Netanyahu but wanted to spare Israelis a fourth election, especially amid the pandemic.

Their three-year coalition deal had stipulated that Netanyahu serve as premier for the first 18 months, with Gantz taking over in November 2021.

The latest crisis came after Gantz demanded the government pass a budget covering both 2020 and 2021, arguing that Israel needed stability, and Netanyahu refused to endorse a 2021 budget.

That, his critics said, was a political tactic designed to keep the coalition unstable and make it easier for Netanyahu to sink the government before he had to yield power to Gantz.

Late Sunday, Blue and White said it had an agreement with Likud on a bill to buy more time to pass the budget, but the Knesset rejected that bill on Tuesday.

Lawmakers from Likud and Blue and White both voted against the coalition proposal.

Gantz, currently in precautionary coronavirus quarantine, was unable to vote.

- 'Risk all around' -

Political commentators have said Netanyahu always planned to force an election before vacating the premier's office for Gantz, but that he would have preferred the vote to be held in June or later.

That would have allowed more time to vaccinate the public against the novel coronavirus and hopefully push Israel's economy towards recovery.

A March election will compel Netanyahu to campaign in February, when he is due to appear in court three times a week for his trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

He is accused of accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade favours with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage -- charges he denies.

Netanyahu also faces a new challenge from influential right-winger Gideon Saar, who defected from Likud to form his own New Hope party.

On Wednesday evening, Water Minister Zeev Elkin, a Netanyahu confidant who was the premier's pointman for ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced he was joining Saar's party.

"Over the past two years, and especially recently, I increasingly feel that your personal considerations and the whims of your close circle are receiving a growing role in your decisions," he said in a letter announcing his resignation from the government.

"I can't continue to call on Israelis to vote for you," he said, accusing Netanyahu's Likud party of being afflicted with "flattery" and "a personality cult".

The latest polls suggest the New Hope party is snapping at the heels of Likud. A survey by public broadcaster KAN predicted it could win 20 seats in the 120-member parliament, with Likud at 28.

Gantz's political fortunes, meanwhile, have plummeted.

Blue and White fractured when he made his deal with Netanyahu, and recent polls suggest the party would win only a handful of seats if elections were held soon.

Gantz's former ally, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid, became the opposition leader in parliament, but voter surveys indicate Lapid would struggle to form a government.

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