Israel faces an unprecedented third general election in a year as the political stalemate that has gripped the country triggered fresh constitutional chaos and recriminations on Wednesday night.
The 120-seat Knesset was automatically dissolved at midnight in Jerusalem after two rounds of elections in April and September had left Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger, ex-military chief Benny Gantz, unable to form governing coalitions.
“Israeli politics has passed the Rubicon now. This is against the rules of political science, almost against the rules of nature,” said Gideon Rahat, a professor at Hebrew University. “They were just elected, and now they are choosing to fire themselves — and it’s not even clear if a third [round of] elections could produce any results.”
So deep was the confusion that it was still unclear when a third round of polls could be held. Lawmakers struggled to pass a bill that would enlist the tens of thousands of government employees needed to run a vote.
The drama was deepened by uncertainty over Mr Netanyahu’s political future, as he fought to keep control of Likud and the rightwing bloc of parties that he has brought to four premierships, including an unbroken decade-long run as prime minister.
The 70-year-old “Magician” of Israel’s politics has found himself confounded twice this year by the rise of Mr Gantz’s neophyte Blue and White alliance — and as it has become increasingly certain that he will soon face trial on charges of corruption.
Polls released this week saw Blue and White inching ahead of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud, but the fractious chasms of Israeli coalitions could stymie any efforts by Mr Gantz to form a governing alliance. Mr Netanyahu himself will face a challenge by a relatively unknown party insider, Gideon Sa’ar, in party leadership primaries on December 26.
In the meantime, Israeli governance has come to a near-complete standstill. This year’s budget is the same as that of 2018, with a small increase for inflation. New appointments have been delayed, including that of a chief of the national police. And starting in January, annual budget disbursals will be handed out in 12 month-by-month instalments.
“Extensive areas of government budgeting are going to be paralysed — new programmes cannot be extended, existing programmes that require new authorisation will have to be suspended,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, listing transportation, infrastructure improvement and even the crucial military budget as areas that face serious delays. “All of these processes are going to be suspended, with serious costs both to the national interest and to individual citizens.”
In parliament, politicians traded jibes, trying to deflect potential voter anger on to their opponents. One jokingly demanded an amendment approving a fourth election, while others assailed Mr Netanyahu for making demands that scuttled any chance of a unity government between the two major parties.
“What used to be a celebration of democracy has become a moment of shame for this building,” said Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of the Blue and White party, who had taken his name out of the running to become prime minister in order to move negotiations along.
Listing the charges on which Mr Netanyahu faces indictment, Mr Lapid said. “There are only three reasons for this election — bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
Mr Netanyahu, who has served as caretaker premier, initially demanded he be allowed to be prime minister first in a unity government, before handing over the reins to Mr Gantz after two years. Mr Gantz declined, saying he wanted Mr Netanyahu to spend the next two years clearing his name in court before returning to the prime minister’s chair.
This week, Mr Netanyahu again offered to go first, but only for six months. That ran counter to Mr Gantz’s vow to his voters that he would not form a government with a leader under indictment. After months of fruitless negotiations, lawmakers were left with little to do but choose a date for the next elections.
In the end, it appeared the deeply divided parliament was unable even to do that — the Basic Laws, the state’s constitution, rendered the Knesset dissolved before members could pass a bill to move the elections forward by a week to March 2.
Further negotiations, or an intervention by President Reuven Rivlin, may be required to make sure the elections does not fall on the national holiday of Purim on March 10, exactly 90 days after the Knesset is dissolved.