Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after a speech in the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 22 2020. Picture: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after a speech in the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 22 2020. Picture: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS

Tel Aviv — Israel’s brittle governing coalition collapsed on Wednesday  after just seven months, sending the election-fatigued country to its fourth vote in two years.

The campaign will feature a new challenger who might win enough support to dethrone the long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, polls suggest. The ballot is to take place on March 23 after parliament failed to approve a national budget for the second year in a row.

The grudging alliance between Netanyahu and defence minister Benny Gantz had been formed expressly to avoid another vote after three inconclusive matchups, and to combine forces to contain the coronavirus outbreak. A fourth race, after long months of policy paralysis, will be especially bruising as the virus defies efforts to tame it, talk of a third national lockdown is percolating, and unemployment is a steep 15%.

“I didn’t want elections,” Netanyahu said late on Tuesday, shortly before parliament disbanded. “But if elections are forced upon us, I promise you we will win.”

The budget crisis was the ostensible reason the alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White unravelled. Parliament automatically disbanded as the Tuesday  midnight deadline to approve a spending plan expired.

But while the partnership gave Israel its first permanent government since December 2018, it seemed destined to fail from the start. Distrust bled through their coalition agreement, while squabbling extended to issues as granular as gay conversion therapy and as sweeping as annexing West Bank land the Palestinians want for a state.

In the background hovered the power-sharing agreement with Gantz that many think Netanyahu never intended to honour, and the prime minister’s corruption trial, which he could derail by forming a more pliant coalition that would pass legislation shielding him from prosecution.

“Netanyahu is taking us to elections just so he doesn’t have to show up in court,” Gantz said in a statement. The prime minister’s trial on bribery and fraud charges is set to kick into high gear in February.

Their marriage of inconvenience broke down after Likud reneged on its pledge to support a two-year budget through 2021. The tussle was as much about politics as economics. A one-year plan would have given Netanyahu a loophole to bring down the government over 2021’s budget before Gantz could become premier next November.

The men made a last-ditch effort to avert the vote after popular former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar bolted from Likud earlier in December to form his own party. But rebel legislators in both Blue and White and Likud forced a new election by rejecting a bill that would have briefly extended the budget deadline to give Netanyahu and Gantz more time to try to reach a compromise.

Both leaders will enter the contest badly weakened. Support for Netanyahu has sunken following a bungled reopening of the economy after the government was installed in mid-May. Protests against his leadership have drawn thousands across the country weekly since late June.

Polls suggest the nationalist Sa’ar might be able to siphon off enough voters from both the right and centre to unseat the country’s longest-serving leader.

Gantz’s Blue and White, which splintered after he teamed up with Netanyahu, is now hovering dangerously close to the threshold for entering parliament, the surveys show.

“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, president of the Israel Democracy Institute research centre.

“We enter this election with a clear advantage in polls for the political right, but also the growing possibility of a coalition that refuses to co-operate with Netanyahu.”

• Reports in Israel said Netanyahu and Gantz had agreed to impose a third national lockdown to curb a surge in new Covid-19 infections. The two would meet on Wednesday to discuss the details.


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