Israel will have a fourth election in two years after Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government collapses
- The Knesset was dissolved at midnight on Tuesday after it failed to pass a budget
- Netanyahu’s Likud party has been in an uneasy alliance with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White for seven months following three inconclusive elections
- The new vote is due in March amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a corruption trial centred on Netanyahu
- His main challenger is thought to be Gideon Saar, who recently broke with Likud
Israel will hold a snap election in March after parliament failed on Tuesday to meet a deadline to pass a budget, triggering a ballot presenting new challenges for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The coalition led by Netanyahu and his former election rival, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, had been inching towards collapse for weeks, undermined by mutual acrimony and mistrust.
It had until midnight to pass a 2020 budget, but failed to do so, triggering the dissolution of the country’s parliament, known as the Knesset.
Campaigning in Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years gets underway with Netanyahu facing public anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and while he is engaged in a corruption trial, the first against an Israeli prime minister.
Israel’s longest-serving leader will also have to contend with a new rival from the right, Gideon Saar, a defector from Likud. An opinion poll on Israel’s Kan public TV on Tuesday showed Saar drawing even with the prime minister.
Netanyahu, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing, and centrist politician Benny Gantz, established a unity government in May after three inconclusive elections held since April 2019.
Israel will hold a snap election in March after parliament failed on Tuesday to meet a deadline to pass a budget, triggering a ballot presenting new challenges for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right). The coalition led by Netanyahu and his former election rival, Defence Minister Benny Gantz (left), had been inching towards collapse for weeks, undermined by mutual acrimony and mistrust
Netanyahu faces a raft of challenges including a corruption trial, frustration with his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the loss of key ally Donald Trump when Joe Biden takes office next month
But they have been locked in a dispute over the passage of a national budget, key to implementing a deal in which Gantz was to have taken over from Netanyahu in November 2021. A new election means that ‘rotation’ will never happen.
Some political analysts said Netanyahu had hoped to use the budget dispute to force an election that would get him out of the power-sharing deal with Gantz. But they said he had preferred a ballot in May or June, when a coronavirus vaccination campaign currently underway could bring him more voters.
‘If an election is forced upon us, I promise you that we will win,’ Netanyahu said in a televised speech on Tuesday, blaming Gantz – who has plunged in the polls – for the early ballot.
Gantz hit back on Twitter, writing: ‘Netanyahu is taking us to an election for the sole purpose of not entering the courtroom,’ and alleging that the prime minister hoped for a new government to promote legislation quashing legal proceedings against him.
Regardless of who wins the upcoming election, Israel is expected to remain in the hands of a centre-right politician. Gantz has lost the support of much of his disappointed base through his partnership with Netanyahu, and the bloc has been left leaderless.
For seven months, Gantz has suffered a number of humiliations and been kept out of the loop on key decisions, such as a series of U.S.-brokered diplomatic agreements with Arab countries. Netanyahu has accused Gantz’s Blue and White party of acting as an ‘opposition within the government.’
Netanyahu’s Likud party has been in an uneasy alliance with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White for seven months following three inconclusive elections. Pictured: Netanyahu (right) and Gantz (left) during a swearing in ceremony at Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in May 2020
Netanyahu will remain prime minister until a new government is formed after the March election. Now 71, he first served in the post from 1996 to 1999 and has held the office since 2009.
In his TV address, and effectively kicking off his campaign, Netanyahu said he had arranged for millions of doses of coronavirus vaccine to be delivered to Israel.
He also hailed the U.S.-brokered diplomatic deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Netanyahu enjoyed a close relationship with President Donald Trump, who made a number of pro-Israel moves during the previous elections including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
But with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden set to take office in January, Netanyahu will lose a major campaign asset, Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told Reuters news agency.
Netanyahu is further hampered by an ongoing corruption trial which is expected to kick into high gear in February, when witnesses begin to take the stand.
‘A criminal defendant with three indictments is dragging the country to a fourth round of elections,’ Blue and White said on Tuesday night. ‘If there wasn’t a trial, there would be a budget and there wouldn’t be elections.’
Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favours to powerful media figures in exchange for positive news coverage about him and his family.
His legal troubles, and questions about his suitability to govern, have been the central issue in the string of recent elections.
The Knesset was dissolved at midnight on Tuesday after failing to meet the deadline to pass a budget
In a TV address on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had arranged for millions of doses of coronavirus vaccine to be delivered to Israel. Pictured: A woman receives the vaccine in Tel Aviv on Tuesday
‘The ongoing political crisis will continue as long as Mr Netanyahu remains prime minister and no government can be formed without him,’ Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Associated Press.
‘I think it is quite safe to assume that this won’t end until either Mr Netanyahu is replaced or if he finds a way, through legislation or political manoeuvring, to either put his trial on hold or suspend it altogether,’ he said.
In the previous three elections, Netanyahu was unable to put together a majority coalition with his traditional religious and nationalist allies. Yet he controlled enough seats to prevent his opponents from cobbling together an alternate coalition.
According to recent opinion polls, that equation may be changing, with a number of rivals poised to control a parliamentary majority without him.
Saar, a stalwart in Netanyahu’s Likud who announced this month that he was breaking away and forming a new party, is seen as the prime minister’s main challenger.
Saar, who once served as Netanyahu’s Cabinet secretary, has accused him of turning the Likud into a ‘personality cult’ focused on ensuring its leader’s political survival.
If elections were held today, Saar’s party would finish second behind the Likud, appearing to give him a veto over a Netanyahu-led government, according to polls. Saar has vowed he will not serve under Netanyahu.
Netanyahu enjoyed a close relationship with Trump, who made a number of pro-Israel moves during the previous elections including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights [File photo]
Biden (left) is thought to be less sympathetic towards Israel than his predecessor, particularly with regards to Iran, which Netanyahu sees as a major threat. Biden has said he wants the US to rejoin a landmark nuclear deal with Iran which was brokered during the Obama administration but abandoned by the US under Trump. [File photo]
Naftali Bennett, another former aide who had a falling out with Netanyahu, leads a religious right-wing party that also has surged in the polls. Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and a longtime Cabinet minister who now leads his own party, also says the prime minister is unfit to lead.
All of these rivalries are more personal than ideological, meaning that Israel’s next government — led by Netanyahu or not — almost certainly will have a right-wing ideology that opposes Palestinian independence and supports continued Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
The recent polls indicate that Gantz, who appealed to left-wing voters in previous elections, may not receive enough votes to even enter the next Knesset.
Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, appears to be gaining some of those voters, but not enough to lead the next government, according to the polls.
The left-wing Labor Party, which established Israel and led the country for its first 30 years, is not expected to cross the threshold, while the far-left Meretz party is expected to barely scrape in.
The Arab-majority Joint List has been plagued by infighting, and it is unclear whether any mainstream party is ready to share power with them. An Arab-led party has never been part of an Israeli government.
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