Israel Heads to 3rd Election in Year as Impasse Defies Solution

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(Bloomberg) -- Israel is headed to its third election in less than a year, an astonishing if foretold development that’s closely intertwined with Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal troubles and may not resolve the political crisis.

The country’s fractured parliament had until midnight Wednesday to find a lawmaker who could form a governing coalition after both Netanyahu and his chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, failed to do so during months of political horsetrading. The deadline passed with the stalemate intact, making a revote a foregone conclusion. After midnight, the Knesset was still debating a bill to officially disband and call elections for March 2.

Israeli Politicians Back March 2 Date for Potential Third Election

Israeli governments have a history of instability, often dissolving before completing their terms, but things have never been so dysfunctional. But then again, neither has a sitting Israeli leader ever stood trial, as Netanyahu was informed in November that he must do, in three influence-peddling cases.

With Netanyahu under indictment, Gantz’s Blue and White bloc balked at teaming up with the prime minister’s Likud in a power-sharing deal that could fully address the country’s economic and security challenges after a year of political deadlock.

“Netanyahu’s indictments created a gap with Gantz that no amount of negotiations could bridge,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute research center. “They both are calculating that third elections will finally force the other side to compromise on these basic principles that they have stayed true to during the last two rounds.”

The very threat of an indictment was a central issue in the two previous elections in April and September, which despite Netanyahu’s reputation as a canny political operator, ended inconclusively with political newcomer Gantz’s Blue and White roughly tied with Likud. Blue and White’s strong performance, despite Gantz’s political inexperience and sometimes inept public performances, reflected how desperate many Israelis are to replace a hardline nationalist dogged by suspicions of bribery and fraud.

Israel Heads to 3rd Election in Year as Impasse Defies Solution

Netanyahu supporters, though, stood by him, adopting his claim that he’s the innocent victim of a politically motivated witch hunt by opponents who deplore his agenda. Netanyahu is accused of illicitly taking about 1 million shekels ($288,000) worth of cigars and champagne from wealthy friends and of scheming to help media moguls in exchange for sympathetic coverage. After he was handed the charge sheet, he accused law enforcement of trying to stage a putsch.

Netanyahu has been angling to return to office with a parliamentary majority that would allow him to push through legislation shielding a sitting leader from prosecution. Polls, however, uniformly suggest that a third round of balloting will produce the same kind of logjam that’s paralyzed decision-making ever since Netanyahu first called snap elections last December.

Most show Likud and Blue and White both doing slightly better since the Justice Ministry announced it was indicting Netanyahu. And neither the prime minister nor Gantz would be able to build a coalition if former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman keeps refusing to endorse either man.

Kingmaker Edges Israel Closer to Third Election in a Year

The Israeli leader’s legal troubles have encouraged Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar to mount a rare open challenge to Netanyahu’s longtime stewardship of the party. Media have reported rumblings within Likud’s upper echelons that the legally embattled premier must be replaced. And recent polls showed Saar could lead the party to a similar second-place showing against Blue and White as Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister with a combined 13 years in power.

But Netanyahu maneuvered within Likud to put off a leadership race, blocking any prospect that Saar could be chosen party chief and build a coalition with Gantz before Wednesday’s deadline expired. The general is willing to join forces with Likud if Netanyahu isn’t its chief.

According to one interpretation of Israeli law, the prime minister can stay in office until he’s exhausted all avenues of appeal. Others argue that there is judicial precedent to force Netanyahu to step aside if he proves able to put together a government after the next vote because the High Court has impelled other politicians to resign after they were indicted on serious charges including bribery.

While Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit has ruled that Netanyahu can continue to lead a caretaker government despite the criminal charges against him, he withheld an opinion on whether the premier could form a permanent government, calling the question “hypothetical” at this point.

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