JERUSALEM – Israel’s government collapsed Tuesday, pushing the country into another early election – the fourth in two years.
The Israeli parliament dissolved at midnight on Tuesday. The move forced a new election after weeks of fighting and paralysis in the so-called unity government, a troubled coalition that was sworn in just seven months ago and that brought together Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party with its main rival, Benny Gantz von, the centrist blue- white party.
Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz blamed each other for the crisis.
“I think at this point we should have come together to find a way to stave off these unnecessary elections,” Netanyahu said in parliament early Tuesday when he tried and failed to seek a delay in its dissolution.
A new election must take place in three months and is planned for March 23rd. However, an election date in late spring or summer, once the coronavirus vaccination campaign is in full swing, could have been more beneficial for Mr Netanyahu.
Parliament automatically dissolved at midnight after the legal deadline for approving a 2020 budget was not met. Mr Netanyahu, whose party owns the financial portfolio, had refused to submit a budget in violation of his coalition agreement with Mr Gantz – the apparent one – on the basis of the government’s collapse.
At the center of the crisis, however, is a deep, mutual distrust between the two men and a country that is fundamentally divided over the fate of Mr Netanyahu, whose corruption process is set to turn into intense evidence in early 2021 and whose regular presence in court is required. He was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.
Analysts said Mr. Netanyahu played in another election in hopes of forming a right-wing religious government that would give him some sort of immunity from prosecution.
“It’s not the budget, stupid,” said Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu “needs a government to pass legislation to delay or lift his case for the foreseeable future,” he added.
However, if he fails to present a budget and forces the dissolution of parliament, he can escape the coalition agreement which stipulates that Mr Gantz should take over the post of prime minister in eleven months. From the beginning of the unity government, few people, including Mr. Gantz, expected Mr. Netanyahu to honor this agreement.
Mr Gantz’s party declined to support a compromise with Mr Netanyahu on the power to set key appointments, including the positions of attorney general and prosecutor. A compromise would have violated blue and white’s flagship rule of law policy, but kept the government on life support.
Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister known for his political prowess, quickly switched to campaign mode.
“The majority of Israel’s citizens see our leadership and our tremendous achievements,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday evening. “We bring in millions of vaccinations, deliver historic peace agreements, curb the Iranian threat and make Israel one of the world’s leading economies.”
Mr. Gantz said his party had entered Mr. Netanyahu’s government, despite paying a heavy political price, “to serve the best interests of the country, given the needs and scale of the moment”.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “we haven’t found a partner on the other end.”
The current government will act as caretaker until after the election and formation of a new government. This process could take many months.
Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz are taking a significant political risk by returning to the elections.
The unity government was formed as a last resort after three inconclusive elections ended without a candidate getting a parliamentary majority. While Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party were way ahead in the polls a few weeks ago, a new Conservative challenger, Gideon Saar, has messed things up.
Mr Saar, who lost to Mr Netanyahu in a Likud leadership race a year ago, recently left the party and started a rival called New Hope. According to recent opinion polls, Mr Saar’s move, supported by disappointed voters from both the right and the political center, has tarnished any clear path back to power for Mr Netanyahu, meaning Israel’s political morass will persist even after a new election could.
Mr Gantz’s blue and white party had already lost most of its popular support after breaking its election promise and entering government with an accused prime minister. Critics say Mr. Gantz, a former army chief, is a weak and indecisive party leader and that his two-year political career is as good as over.
“I think he has to get up and go,” said Professor Hazan, the political science expert.
Mr Netanyahu continued to condemn him, saying he actually reached a compromise with Mr Gantz on Monday on appointments and authorities, but the rebels within the Blue and White party, including Attorney General Avi Nissenkorn, had blocked Mr Gantz from the deal.
Miki Zohar, a Likud official, said blue and white committed “political suicide”.