Israel lurched towards a likely third election after unity talks between interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz deadlocked along familiar lines.
The late-night discussions on Tuesday descended into public acrimony with only hours left for Mr Gantz to form a parliamentary majority after he failed to convince Mr Netanyahu to give up the premiership and join a unity government.
Neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Gantz have been able to secure a governing majority after deadlocked elections in April and September, raising the prospect of an unprecedented third attempt at the polls early next year. Mr Netanyahu has refused to abandon his ultrareligious rightwing allies and Mr Gantz has refused to allow Mr Netanyahu to serve as prime minister in a unity government unless he clears his name concerning corruption allegations.
“We need to tell the public the truth — Netanyahu is a unity rejectionist and he is going to do everything possible to force us into elections,” said Mr Gantz after the talks collapsed. “I’m prepared to make compromises, without conceding fundamental principles.”
A retired military chief, Mr Gantz has risen to near the top of Israeli politics since he entered political life in January. His mandate to form a governing coalition expires tonight.
Mr Netanyahu is facing a potential indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, expected to be announced as early as next week. The interim prime minister denies the charges and has described the indictment as a witch-hunt designed to topple his rightwing government, which has led the country for the past decade.
For Mr Netanyahu, contesting the indictment even as interim prime minister has a legal advantage: there is an established legal precedent requiring members of parliament to step down while under indictment, but that precedent does not apply to the prime minister.
“We are in absolutely uncharted territory,” said Yuval Shany, a professor at Hebrew University and senior researcher at the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute. “For the first time in history, we have reached a situation where twice you cannot form a government, under the specific context of a PM facing criminal charges. This is the perfect storm we are experiencing.”
Avigdor Lieberman, a secular rightwing parliamentarian and kingmaker, had hoped he could bring Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz together in a governing coalition but came up short.
“As far as I am concerned, they’re both guilty,” Mr Lieberman told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. “I left no stone unturned in my attempt to reach a unity government like we promised. If we are dragged into elections, it will be because of a lack of leadership.”
Mr Lieberman added that he would not consider joining a minority government supported by the Joint List of Arab parties, which emerged as the third-largest parliamentary group after the September rerun with 13 seats in the Knesset. Mr Gantz had flirted with the possibility of an interim administration with their support but was assailed by Mr Netanyahu, who has smeared the Arab-Israeli leaders as supporters of terrorism.
President Rivlin now can either nominate a third member of parliament to try his hand at forming a governing coalition or call third elections. No candidate has offered to take up the challenge so far.
Underscoring the stakes, Israel last night carried out a large-scale strike against Iranian targets in Syria, hitting what the Israel Defense Forces said were surface-to-air missiles and weapons warehouses at bases controlled by the elite Quds Force of the Iranian military. At least seven non-Syrians, likely Iranians, were killed, and after the Syrian military fired missiles at Israeli jets, the Israelis also hit Syrian targets, the military said.