The deadline for Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to choose a prime minister expired at midnight last night. Without a decision having been made, the country will vote for a record third time in less than a year.
After two fruitless hung-parliament elections in April and September, and protracted unsuccessful negotiations between minority parties aimed at forming a government after each, in an unprecedented move the responsibility to pick a leader - any leader - was then handed to Knesset.
It had 21 days to break the political deadlock, but last night, after an all-day session, the legislature acknowledged that it too had failed, and moved to disband itself, setting 2 March as the date for the next national vote.
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There is one key sense in which March’s election will differ from the previous two. Now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces an 82-day campaign as a defendant in three criminal indictments for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
The spectre of the charges hung over his head during both previous elections, but are now official, having been brought by Israel’s Attorney General late last month, and while this new dynamic will not sway his most ardent supporters, some pundits predict it might tip the balance in favour of his rival, Benny Gantz.
“We are in a new phase of the legal process, and that might change how some Israelis view the fitness of the prime minister being elected, even though we have not yet seen a major change in the polls just yet,” said Professor Yedidia Stern, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
However, polls indicate that while Blue and White will indeed pull further ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in March, in part down to the indictments, they still have little hope of forming a bloc large enough to govern.
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Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party, has refused to countenance any coalition with Netanyahu, he says, because of the criminal indictments. “You have the full right to defend yourself but you cannot use the Knesset as a refuge from the law,” Gantz told Netanyahu in a video released on Tuesday.
“It now seems that we will be going into a third election cycle today because of Netanyahu’s attempt to obtain immunity,” he said.
Netanyahu, who argues the indictments are little more than a “witch hunt” perpetrated by a resentful “deep state”, dismissed Gantz’s analysis as little more than “political spin”.
However, writing in Israeli publication Haaretz, Ravit Hecht is uncompromising in blaming the prime minister for the paralysis in Israeli governance.
“Benjamin Netanyahu… has been the primary reason for this drawn-out and multi-pronged election contest [...]. He is the chimney through which the smoke streams; he is also the one responsible for the wedge – that has expanded to become an irreparable rift - between the two camps.”
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